“Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection.”
– Jane Austen, in an 1814 letter to her niece, Fanny Knight
She was a master of stories of romantic love, yet found little in her own life. The happy endings in which affection and respect trump class and crass didn’t quite play out in her own short time on Earth. She lived most of her life in a beautiful corner of England – but used it only once as the locale of her immensely popular books.
Jane Austen’s quiet birth, life and death in early 19th-century Hampshire are not the stuff of romantic legend. But more than 200 years after her birth, Austen’s books are romantic icons. They’ve been translated into dozens of languages, filmed for screens big and small, and spawned a range of copycat projects ranging from obsessive 21st-century fans in The Jane Austen Book Club
to the campy best-selling Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
that extends Austen’s signature tussles of Georgian manners and morals to the brain-gobbling living-dead gentry.
“Janeites” are the fans who have read and reread the books and, when given the chance, scour the English countryside for all the places, real and imaginary, connected with Austen and her books. Where exactly is Pemberley, and is the brooding Mr. Darcy “in residence” as Miss Elizabeth Bennet inquires in Pride and Prejudice
My own Austen journeys have stretched from Steventon, where Austen was born, to Winchester, where she died – with stops in Bath, Southampton, Portsmouth, Oxford and Chawton along the way.
These journeys were taken up out of love – not for Austen, but for my wife, whose stacks of dog-eared Austen paperbacks are on the short shelf next to her nightstand. I am not so much a “Janeite” as an enabler of one. So I offer the apology for a dabbler who writes about what millions across the planet embrace with so much passion.
So take a journey to the world that created the mind that created Elizabeth and Darcy, Elinor and Edward, Emma and Mr. Knightley. We’ll just try to avoid Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She might not approve of insolence and mushy breeding.
“Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?”
“To sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment
– Jane Austen
The pretty Hampshire village is where Austen was born in the rectory of her father’s church in 1775. Like many places that have an early connection with a famous person’s life, Steventon has less to offer the fan than hoped. It was the incubator of Austen’s talents, but her literary life really started after she left town. The 13th-century St. Nicholas church where her father was vicar still stands, though the rectory was torn down in 1828. The church bells are a 1995 gift from the Jane Austen Society of North America. Life in the small village shaped her country-centric attitudes. The Vyne, a great house in nearby Basingstoke that is now maintained by the National Trust, was the scene of the kind of parties that populate her books. Austen’s father’s decision to retire from the church and move in 1801 to the busy, expensive city of Bath came as culture shock to Austen, then 26. In what may be an apocryphally melodramatic story, Jane is said to have fainted dead away when her father broke what he thought was the happy news.
“But Catherine could be stubborn too;
and walked out of the Pump Room, leaving Isabella with Captain Tilney
– Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
My first exposure to Austen tourism was on a visit to Bath, the lovely but tourist-filled spa town with its famous Regency-era crescent. Austen visited the Lower Assembly Rooms and the town’s famed Pump Room, both of which look much as they did in Austen’s time. My wife sought out the house on Sydney Place where Austen lived. When she stood in the doorway, it was as if I were witnessing the literary equivalent of a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Austen herself had mixed feelings about Bath, which taught her much about the class-based manners and backbiting that would be laced throughout her books. Both Northanger Abbey
are set primarily in and around Bath. Neighborhoods just a few hundred yards apart had widely different social standing. Austen once wrote a relative of the social claustrophobia, lamenting, “I hate tiny parties; they force one into constant exertion,” an idea echoed by Anne Elliott in Persuasion
, who complains of returning to Bath for the social season, “with a sinking heart, anticipating an imprisonment of many months.” Whatever Austen thought of Bath, Bath loves Austen. There is a Jane Austen Centre chronicling her life on Gay Street. The death of her father in 1805 had Austen on the move again.
SOUTHAMPTON and PORTSMOUTH
“The men appeared to her all coarse, the women all pert, everybody under-bred
– Fanny Price remarking on the people of Portsmouth in Mansfield Park
by Jane Austen
It’s hard to imagine the pretty port that Austen experienced when she arrived from Bath in 1806. Southampton then was known for its narrow medieval alleys and Tudor-style half-timbered buildings whose upper floors hung precariously over the streets. The town was a stopover in the spa craze that swept England during the early 19th century. Life in the navy towns of Southampton and nearby Portsmouth excited Austen’s creative mind, fueled in part by the presence of her brothers Charles and Frank, who served in Portsmouth (and eventually became admirals in the Royal Navy). The Portsmouth scenes in Mansfield Park are the only time she actually sets a portion of one of her novels in Hampshire, the region where she was born, lived almost all her life and died. Unfortunately, the Navy connection has all but erased the cities Austen knew. Nazi bombers hammered the wharfs and port during World War II, and what Adolf Hitler didn’t destroy, misguided urban-renewal plans finished off. What is left is a sterile city with just a few pockets of Old World charm intact. The area where Austen lived around Castle Square has been completely modernized. A potentially wonderful remnant is the historic Dolphin Hotel on High Street. Jane and her sister, Cassandra, attended dances there, but when I visited before a Cunard cruise out of Southampton a few years ago, it was more than a bit sad and run-down. Not a place to stay. However, I received a report last summer that the hotel had been sold and a major refurbishment was in the works, in part to benefit from interest in Austen tourism.
“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?
– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
, written primarily in Chawton, 1811
If you can make only one stop on an Austen trip, make it this village in Hampshire. Jane’s brother Edward inherited an estate and offered a cottage to his mother and sisters. The centerpiece of a visit is the house where Austen lived and wrote, but even those along for the ride with a Jane fan will enjoy the pubs and lanes of the small, sunny town. Her mother and sister are buried in the churchyard. No place evokes the English country manners and dispositions of Austen’s characters better than Chawton. To see Chawton is to understand Austen’s world, just as the bleak Yorkshire moors of Haworth shaped the Bronte sisters. There’s a nice Fuller’s pub and a tea shop. But for true fans like Sarah Brubacker, a reporter with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
, this is the touchstone of any Austen journey: “The house was exactly the size I imagined; comfortable, but not small. There were the amber crosses that Charles Austen, Jane’s seafaring brother, had given to her and her sister, Cassandra – famous to us Janeites. On the door leading to the staircase, a sign warned that it squeaked, and said Jane liked it that way so she could hide her manuscripts if she heard someone coming. Then, there it was: Jane’s writing table. I stood and stared, amazed that she could write a brilliant work like Persuasion
on such a tiny table. It was beautiful to me. It looked so well-loved and well-used.”
“The last sad ceremony is to take place on Thursday morning; her dear remains are to be deposited in the Cathedral
– Cassandra Austen, writing of the death of her sister Jane in 1817
Jane Austen’s life story ends in the famous cathedral city. Increasingly ill, she moved to Winchester in March 1816 for treatment and lived in a small yellow house a short walk from Winchester Cathedral. She died in July 1817. The building where she died has a small plaque commemorating her last days. It’s now a building affiliated with one of the city’s universities. It is a short walk to Winchester Cathedral, where Austen was buried beneath one of the north aisle floors. The cathedral is one of Britain’s great religious edifices, and the Close, the area of lanes and Tudor-era buildings nearby, is wonderful to stroll on a warm afternoon. Around the corner from Austen’s final residence is the Wykeham Arms pub – a phonetic version of the cad British officer at the center of
– The Orange County Register/MCT