Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Chasing Jane

"Ah! There's nothing like staying at home for real comfort." - Jane Austen

Artist's impression of Steventon Rectory

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that one can not explore many historic sites in the south of England without, at some point, encountering Jane Austen. This year she seems particularly prevalent, as it is the bicentennial anniversary of her sadly early demise at the age of forty-one, and she will soon be adorning the reverse of our ten pound note.

 Even on a personal level, she seems to have been close to me of late; my two previous articles have featured her to a greater or lesser extent, although neither focused upon her as more than an author and commentator. One was a short essay regarding the interpersonal relationships portrayed in her earliest novel, the other was an exploration of an estate in Kent which just happened to adjoin an estate belonging to her brother.

In early April came an opportunity to follow the historic trail of Austen herself. Not the author, not the cultural icon, but the apparently unremarkable clergyman's daughter who never married, never lived apart from her parents or siblings, and spent three-quarters of her life residing at two addresses in a small area of Hampshire.

This is not to say that Jane Austen never travelled. Some of her youthful education took her to boarding schools in Oxford, Southampton and Reading. She has connections with several addresses in Bath, where the family resided for several years following her father's retirement, and I have encountered her in Lyme Regis (where she set part of her final novel Persuasion), and in Tonbridge (her father's home town, now the location of my favourite Italian restaurant). Nevertheless, Jane Austen was born, lived most of her life, died and was buried in a relatively small area of Hampshire and it was this area that, thanks to the enthusiasm of a visiting American friend, came to be explored by us early last month. The life of Jane Austen, from birth to burial, spatially covered in a single afternoon.

Reading Abbey gatehouse, where Jane attended school

On Tuesday 4th April, four of us bundled into the latest Vulpine-mobile, a silver Vauxhall Corsa dubbed 'Hyper', and undertook the mundane journey around the M25, diverting in Surrey to pass through Guildford and over the stretch of A31 known as the Hog's Back. From here, we snaked west across country before arriving on the fringes of a small village near Basingstoke, a quiet rural community called Steventon. Our first point of interest is the parish church of St Nicholas, set on a hill at some distance from the present settlement, a building which played an important role in Jane's life. She was baptised here, her father, two brothers and a nephew were all vicars here, and she would have been a regular attendee of its services for the first quarter-century of her existence.

Steventon Church

The church itself occupies a peaceful and rustic spot, but is of little architectural or aesthetic merit. Its power rests with the superiority of its connections. The steeple, erected after Jane's time, is capped by a weather vane in the shape of a pen. In the churchyard lie her eldest brother James with his two wives, as well as family members of her brother Edward.

Inside the church can be found a plaque dedicated to the author, erected by her great-grand-niece Emma Austen-Leigh in 1936, and also to be found is a card upon which is written a prayer created by Jane herself. This is the building presided over by the Reverend George Austen for thirty years. He was succeeded in his position by his sons James and Henry, and by his grandson William Knight.

The lane leading from the church rolls gently down an incline, and we amble leisurely toward the foot of the hill. A belt of trees shields the meadows to our left; the exposed fields to our right glow with the cheerful verdance of early Spring. Robins flit and scold among the boughs and buds, lambs bounce and scurry around the legs of their dams. Our guest from Colorado wonders if we are likely to see any pheasants in the wild; we assure her that the sighting of pheasants, in the arcadian Springtime of deep Wessex, can be all but guaranteed.

Jane was born in a house in the corner of this field. The New Rectory is in the background.

The church lane terminates at a country road that leads toward the village of Steventon... and here, at the junction, stands a meadow. Sheep gather in its distant corner, and a neat hedgerow attempts to shield its secrets from passers-by. However, by leaning on a gate, one can gain a good view of the trees in the meadow's north-eastern corner, and the remains of an old well. Upon this spot once stood Steventon Rectory, now replaced by a building visible up a slope behind us. Only the trees and the well remain to show that a rambling old dwelling used to stand here, and there is nothing else... no clues, no information boards, no indication that this is the spot where Jane was born in 1775, the seventh of eight children, where she grew from childbood to adulthood, where she made her coy and incisive observations of the Georgian society to which she belonged, and where she wrote the drafts of what would eventually emerge as Northanger Abbey, Pride And Prejudice and Sense And Sensibility.

Right here in this unimposing field in Hampshire.

The spot of Jane's birth and childhood
As a perpetual student of literature and history, this unassuming pocket of English countryside is a Mecca for me. Little remains but what the imagination can provide. I can see the colours of Spring dancing and diving before my eyes, magnetically drawing together to form images lost in time and born of fancy. I can see a rambling, three-storey building, a barn adjoining, a well and an orchard beyond... I can see chickens fussing and cackling in the yard, can visualise the Austen children laughing and giggling as they stumble and run down the slope beyond the orchard... as inside the house Mrs Austen bustles in the parlour while Mr Austen nestles in his study, perusing his theological literature as he quietly plans the next Sunday sermon.

Moments in time, replaced by the bleating of lambs, the scratching of rooks below the New Rectory at our backs, and the imperious strutting of a distant pheasant (there you go, Colorado!).

There are other sites to visit this day, more sights to see. The life of Jane Austen extended beyond Steventon, so we clamber back up the lane, heading for the car, ready and eager to pick up her trail.

Site of the well, where Jane and her family drew their water.

By the year 1800, only the Austen daughters remained at Steventon with their parents, the six sons having dispersed. James had taken holy orders and had followed his father into the church. George, suffering from an unidentified disability, was living with relatives elsewhere in the county. Edward had been adopted by their rich and childless cousins the Knights, who owned estates in Hampshire and Kent. Henry was attempting to pursue a career in banking, and both Charles and Francis had departed to join the Navy. It was at this point, at the turn of the new century, that the Reverend George Austen decided to retire.

The Reverend and Mrs Austen
Apart from a handful of brief spells at boarding school, the twenty-five year old Jane had never lived anywhere but Steventon. Now she found herself packing her clothes, her belongings, her letters and her handwritten manuscripts, and moving with her parents and older sister Cassandra to a place quite removed from the pastoral peace of Hampshire... the bustling, fashionable, cosmopolitan and ancient city of Bath in Somerset.

Jane's life for the next few years became busier. The Austens leased a house in Sydney Street. Their summers were spent in fashionable resorts such as Dawlish, Lyme Regis, Ramsgate, and Sidmouth. Visits were also made to their relatives and friends in Hampshire and Kent. Jane found herself with little time for writing. In 1804, the lease on their home having expired, they moved into Green Park Buildings.

4 Sydney Street, the Austens' first address in Bath

Then, in 1805, Reverend Austen fell ill and was dead within days. He was buried in the crypt of St Swithin's Church, Walcot, Bath - the same building in which he and Mrs Austen had been married. The day after her bereavement, Jane wrote to her brother Francis, "We have lost an excellent Father. An illness of only eight and forty hours carried him off yesterday morning between ten and eleven. His tenderness as a father, who can do justice to?"

Gay Street, the Austen's final Bath address

The Austen women subsequently moved to Gay Street, but their income of £600 p.a. was becoming increasingly stretched in a city that was becoming a more expensive place to live. They decamped to Clifton, then to Southampton, but it became clear that they needed a more permanent place of residence. It was Jane's brother Edward who came to the rescue. He had inherited the Knight estates at Godmersham in Kent and Chawton in Hampshire and was, in modern parlance, 'minted'. Consequently, Mrs Austen and her two spinster daughters moved, in 1809, to a cottage in Chawton - only fifteen miles across country from Jane's birthplace in Steventon.

And since Bath, Clifton and Southampton were too distant to be reached during a single daytrip, it was to Chawton that we headed after departing Steventon.

Bath, where Jane lived for six years

We park in Chawton's main car park, just across the road from our destination. Here, we meet with another friend, who has driven down from Reading, and our group cross the road and enter the property where Jane resided for the last eight years of her life.

Chawton Cottage from the rear

Built in the seventeenth century, the cottage was a farmhouse then, in the 1780's, a pub - the New Inn - where two murders took place. Edward Austen-Knight, once he became the owner, leased it to his steward before granting it to his mother, sisters and their companion Martha Lloyd (who, in old age, married Jane's brother Francis).

Cat in the garden, doubtless littering the place with deceased rodents and birds. Are the shades of Chawton to be thus polluted?

The house has a range of memorabilia, varying from furniture and fittings to small, personal belongings such as Jane's topaz ring. This was almost lost to the nation after being sold at auction to American pop star Kelly Clarkson, but the Government issued an order forbidding it to leave the country, and it now resides in a display case here at the House. It was originally a gift from Jane's naval brother Charles, who had purchased it from the proceeds of his reward for capturing a pirate ship.

Chawton Cottage from the garden

The family settled happily at Chawton and here, Jane's literary career took off. Northanger Abbey had already been purchased by a publisher who was 'sitting on' the manuscript rather than publishing it; however, Sense And Sensibility was published in 1811 and was followed two years later by Pride And Prejudice. The novels instantly gained a following, their most conspicuous fan being the Prince Regent.

A bedroom at Chawton
Dining table

George Austen's cabinet

One of Chawton's most evocative exhibits is a small, circular desk. Jane wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion while living here, and this was her writing desk. I tentatively reach out, feel its surface, its grain... feel the weight of its history. My fingers lightly brush the walnut surface where the words in Jane's head poured onto the page, where her canonical novels emerged into the world, to later irrevocably embed themselves in the English psyche. As well as mine. The shivers that run down my spine are born from awe as well as pleasure. Anne Elliot, Fanny Price and Emma Woodhouse came to life on this same cool, quiet surface. I could not have felt more ecstatic if I had been holding Shakespeare's quill.

Jane's writing desk

Even in the outbuildings, small and personal touches abound. A bakehouse that produced the bread which the family would have eaten. A donkey cart which would have carried them around the neighbourhood. Many of Austen's comedy characters use forms of transport as a way of measuring the wealth and prestige of their contemporaries (Lord and Lady Weakchin arrived at the ball in a chaise and four!), and I had to speculate if Jane was thinking of her own, more modest form of transport when she scribbled down these sort of observations.

Outbuildings at Chawton

The bakehouse

The Regency equivalent of a Nissan Micra

By the time we step out of Chawton Cottage we are feeling a bit peckish. There is a pub across the road, the Greyfriars, and a tearoom with the amusing monicker of Cassandra's Cup. Both are tempting, but we decide to soldier on to the last stage of our literary quest, and the last stage of Jane's story. We bundle into our vehicles and drive sixteen miles southwest, to the venerable city of Winchester.

The Romans built it and named it Venta Belgarum. The West Saxons called it Wintoncaester and made it their capital. It is one of the most historic cities in England, and one of my firm favourites.

Prior's Gate, Winchester

Pilgrim's House, Winchester

We circle the Cathedral, pass colossal Perpendicular architecture, pass the Pilgrim's House of 1308 and through the fifteenth century Prior's Gate. We follow the high walls of the Cathedral Close along College Street until we come across a monument on a stretch of open grass, presumably created for the Austen bicentenary.

Bicentenary memorial, College Street

A wall of ivy, surrounding a quote from Sense And Sensibility: 'Know your own happiness. Call it hope.'

Why here? Why has this modern monument been placed here, up against the medieval wall surrounding the Cathedral Close? Why here in College Street?

Because of the mustard-coloured building on the opposite side of the road.

8 College Street, with Team Vulpine 

Working from Chawton, Jane saw Mansfield Park published in 1814 and Emma at the end of 1815. She completed and prepared Persuasion in 1816, but by now was beginning to suffer ill-health. Although her illness has not been definitively identified, it is believed to have been Addison's Disease or Hodgkin's Lymphona. Although Jane originally made light of her health problems, as the year progressed it became clear that her condition was becoming progressively worse. By 1817 she had begun a new novel, Sanditon, but abandoned it after twelve chapters as she was simply too weak to continue. She described herself as being 'every wrong colour' and remaining 'chiefly on the sofa'.

With Cassandra accompanying her, Jane removed herself to Winchester to seek a last-ditch cure. It didn't work. At about 4 o' clock in the morning of 18th July 1817, cradled in her sister's arms, Jane Austen passed away at the age of 41 in a room at 8 College Street.

The house opposite the new memorial.

The plaque at 8 College Street

We adjourn to Winchester's main thoroughfare and dine at The Royal Oak, a pub standing on the site of a medieval Royal dwelling. Replete with 4 x Fish & Chips and 1 x Macaroni Cheese, we head for our final site visit of the day... Winchester's magnificent Cathedral, resting place of Saxon kings and Queens, a couple of Danish monarchs and William II. Here, in the north aisle of the longest nave in Europe, we stand above the vault containing the woman whose life we have spent the day exploring.

Winchester Cathedral

Following the loss of his sister, Henry bought back the unpublished manuscript of Northanger Abbey and had it released as a double-bill with Persuasion. It would be another half-century before a later generation of the family published Jane's juvenile works, plus the novellas The Watsons, Lady Susan and the unfinished Sanditon.

Jane's grave

Mission accomplished. We have, over the course of a busy but rewarding afternoon, traced the shadow of Jane Austen from her quiet, provincial birthplace to her urban vault of eternal slumber. Her epitaph, composed by her brother James, lists her personal virtues yet omits her literary accomplishments... not a bad thing, as we read a panegyric on Jane the woman, the beloved daughter and sister, rather than the more abstract Jane that created  Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. After today, Jane feels more an old friend than an etched portrait on a forthcoming banknote.

Home we head, northeast up the M3, surrounded by rolling fields where the cattle low and the pheasants rasp.

Farewell, old friend.

Jane Austen, portrait by Cassandra Austen

No comments:

Post a Comment