It left us speechless, quite speechless I tell you, and we have not stopped talking of it since

I'm a literary traveler, meaning when I go someplace where an author lived or worked or wrote about, I like to see and experience the actual place. (I've talked about this a bit before here and here.) I bring it up again now because, during the first part of May, I was fortunate enough to spend two weeks in England with my three daughters. One of the principle reasons for my making the trip was to put right seeing some Jane Austen-related places I omitted to visit the first time I was there.

I just read in a book called Above London that London has not always been careful about preserving its architectural heritage the way other European cities have. Of course, I don't think it's all London's fault, because they did have the Great Fire, and the Blitz, and what have you. But still. The book was talking about Southwark in particular, but I personally think it's true of just about anything having to do with Jane Austen. And when it comes to Jane Austen, it's not just London that shortchanges her.

That doesn't mean you can't find places associated with Jane Austen in London or other places in England. You just have to know where to look, and you can't get your expectations too high, especially when you have limited time to explore.

I shall review the places I was able to get to.

Steventon - Jane Austen was born (on 16 Dec 1775) and raised there. Okay, I didn't really go there, but even if I had I couldn't have seen the house she grew up in because it no longer exists. I offer Steventon as an illustration of the sometime carelessness toward national treasures that I'm talking about. (We also didn't get to visit Chawton, where Jane Austen lived the last eight years of her life, and where the house still stands. If I had been able to go there, this post would probably have a different tone. Probably.)

Bath - After Jane's father retired, he moved his family to Bath. Jane wasn't exactly thrilled with the prospect: when she heard the news, she reportedly fainted. Apparently she thought of Bath as a nice place to visit but she didn't want to live there. Anyway, they lived there from 1801 to 1806.

We didn't have a lot of time in Bath, so we pretty much chose to see the basics, starting from The Jane Austen Centre at 42 Gay Street. The Austens lived at several different addresses during the Bath years, but 42 Gay Street wasn't one of them. They did, however, live for a time at 25 Gay Street.

Just to put things in perspective, and as an example of how things ought to be done, in the town of Thirsk they took the actual building that James Herriott used to work and live in and they turned it into a really interesting museum.

James Herriott's veterinary office in Thirsk

And in Stratford-upon-Avon, well, for the last 250 years or so they've been trying to memorialize Shakespeare in every square foot of the town they can get hold of.

Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon

Jane Austen's house at #25 is a dental surgery. And there's not even a plaque indicating she lived there.

Jane Austen slept here

Granted, the Jane Austen Centre at #42 makes a noise like a museum, but that's not really where she lived, is it? I wonder why the Centre and the dental surgeon don't just do a swap.

Next, we went to the Assembly Rooms. These are open to the public, as long as there's no function taking place therein.

Assembly Rooms

There was a function taking place therein, so we couldn't explore. We also went to the Pump Room, which is now a restaurant and really expensive, so we didn't do more than take a peek inside.

Pump Room (non-restaurant entrance)

London - Jane Austen's brother, Henry, lived in London, where he had a bank at 10 Henrietta Street, in Covent Garden. His residence was above the bank, and Jane stayed there for a while during 1813-1814.

Just so you know, Samuel Johnson's house in London is a museum. Charles Dickens' house in London is a museum. The house in Hampstead where John Keats stayed with his friend is a museum. Even Sherlock Holmes, who didn't exist, has a house-turned-museum on Baker Street. But 10 Henrietta Street is a clothing store.

10 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden

This door is really hard to guess when playing 20 Questions

Jane stayed with her brother at another address, 23 Hans Place, but the neighborhood was rebuilt, or at least extensively remodeled, during the late 19th century, so we didn't go there. Also, we were tired.

Two places in London not directly associated with Jane Austen during her lifetime, but that are worth visiting anyhow, are the National Portrait Gallery, where Cassandra's sketch of Jane is displayed . . .

I had to go back and look at it a second time

. . . and the British Library, where you can see Jane Austen's writing desk and some of her juvenilia on permanent exhibit in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery. That was pretty cool.

Photography isn't allowed in the British Library, so here's
a picture of Olivia Williams as Jane Austen in
Miss Austen Regrets,
using a facsimile of the writing desk

Winchester - Jane came here from her home at Chawton when her illness worsened, and lived here for the last six weeks of her life. The house she lived in is on College Street and is not open to the public. I think it's still a private residence. At least it's not a store or a dental surgery.

8 College Street

After she passed away, Jane was buried in Winchester Cathedral.

Winchester Cathedral

Here at last I saw some understanding and appreciation of who this woman was - beloved of her family and beloved of thousands and thousands of her readers. It helped that, of the many churches we visited in our journeys, Winchester Cathedral was one of the most reverent - perhaps because we were there on a Sunday. At any rate, I became a little emotional as I stood by her grave. What a loss it was that she died so young. I thought of what a friend and fellow Janeite once said to me, that she would've liked to live in Jane Austen's time so she could make sure Jane had plenty of warm food and medicine, and a room to write in.

As I stood there, I started asking myself why I felt so deeply about Jane Austen. Why does she interest me so much? Why do I love her books? Well, I like her heroines, who are witty and smart and get plenty of exercise. I like how pretty much everyone ends up with the partner they deserve, good or bad, happy or unhappy, or in between. More than that, I enjoy reading (and rereading) Jane Austen, because she repays reading. I get something new from her every time. She uses language wonderfully, which I appreciate, and she has a great sense of humor. Her characters are so realistic, I feel like I am revisiting friends. And even though she lived and died nearly 200 years ago, I find myself learning something about life and human nature from her.

It reminds me of something a guy named Jon Poletti wrote on the Janeites list a number of years ago: "I think there is something revolutionary in being a Jane Austen fan, which is to realize that the world before you is enough. Even as the others dissipate their gifts in trying to find that perfect condition which will make creation possible. But it, she says, is all right there, waiting."

Thank you, Jane.

I hope someday to return and see the house at Chawton and the field and the church at Steventon, and even the remodeled house at Hans Place, but nothing will be more rewarding than the sense of quiet yet profound esteem I felt for Jane Austen in Winchester Cathedral.


Shannon said...

...and 84 Charing Cross Road is a Pizza Hut.

Jared and Megan said...

yeah I felt similarly in Winchester Cathedral.

I'd love to go back someday also and see the places you mentioned, especially the house still standing where they lived.