Desperately seeking Austen
By Heather Vogel Frederick
There are worse things than being lost in the English countryside on a fine spring day.
We were hunting for Steventon, a destination of the dot-on-a-map variety, but on this late April afternoon it eluded us. With no one but fields of sheep to ask for directions, we took several wrong turns through woods bright with bluebells before finally pulling up in front of a pretty country church.
My heart beat a little faster as I climbed out of the car. I had come to England on a mission, to learn more about Jane Austen’s life and books by visiting the places where she lived and wrote. This tiny village in Hampshire marked the beginning of my quest, for it was here that Jane was born and spent the first 25 years of her life.
The house where she and her family lived, and where she penned early drafts of the novels that would later become “Pride and Prejudice,” “Northanger Abbey,” and “Sense and Sensibility,” is no longer standing. The Church of St. Nicholas, however, where her father was rector for nearly 40 years, is open to the public. Built in the early 13th century, nothing much seems changed
inside the cool stone Norman edifice from when Jane worshiped here, aside from the abundant tributes to her, including a plaque on the wall placed by her great-grandniece,
needlepoint kneelers decorated with her silhouette, and the church’s quill- pen-shaped weathervane.
I signed the visitor’s book, struck by the number of other literary pilgrims who had also made their way to this out-of-the-way spot. As it turns out, my mission was not an uncommon one. My two travel companions and I were up to our muslin petticoats in a thriving trend: literary travel.
“It’s a niche that’s definitely growing,” says Francis McGovern, who, along with his wife Linda, founded the website www.literarytraveler.com
in 1998. The pair met as fellow English majors in college. “My wife said to me the first day we met, when I asked her what she wanted to do with her life, ‘Travel and write,’ ” he recalls.
A few years later, they found a way to combine those interests when they created their website, which features a blend of travel articles, information on literary tours, and book reviews, as well as a newsletter and social networking site where people can blog about their novel adventures.
Francis, who occasionally leads tours himself (his favorite was a Mark Twain-themed steamboat trip down the Mississippi), says there’s something special about this brand of travel. “When you take a trip like this, and get to visit a place you’ve read about, you get to really connect with it. You feel like you become part of what you’ve read. It’s memorable.”
Business is also brisk at Idlewild Books (www.idlewildbooks.com) in New York City, says owner David Del Vecchio, who opened the bookstore a year ago. Despite the struggling economy, “sales have been strong,” he notes. They’ve recorded double-digit growth every month this year.
Idlewild (the original name for JFK Airport) offers a unique spin, stocking a wide selection of literature in translation and arranging books geographically rather than by genre – thus travel guides are shelved cheek-by-jowl with fiction, history, language-learning books, maps, and more. “If you’re going to Brazil,” Mr. Del Vecchio explains, “you’ll find books about Brazil along with books set in Brazil and books by Brazilian novelists.”
The arrangement has struck a chord with customers, some of whom come in simply looking for a good read, while others appreciate the customized “destination kits” that match books to readers’ interests.
Onward to Bath
It was a book, in fact, that brought me to the next stop on my Jane Austen tour. While researching the trip, I stumbled upon “Novel Destinations: Literary Landmarks from Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West” by Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon, a “book-lover’s Baedeker,” full of detailed travel advice, commentary, and anecdotes about the authors profiled.
Co-author Schmidt clued me on the fact that that what I was doing – a writer tailing another writer – was actually nothing new.
“A lot of writers were literary travelers,” she informed me. “Nathaniel Hawthorne visited Sir Walter Scott’s castle in Scotland, and Louisa May Alcott toured Dickensian sites when she went to London.” Edith Wharton and Henry James toured literary landmarks as well and once “visited George Sand’s chateau together.”
An avid aficionado of this brand of travel herself, Schmidt’s favorite destination is Bronte country. “I loved Wuthering Heights, and for me, the moors were as much a part of the story as the characters,” she says.
Cheered to find myself in such good company, I set off with my friends for Bath. The city, which is perched on the southern fringe of the Cotswolds, is an architectural gem that served in part as the backdrop for Jane’s novels “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion.” It was also Jane’s home for five years. The jury is still out as to whether she actually liked Bath – Austen lore has it that when her father announced his plans to resettle the family there, Jane, who still lived with her parents and much preferred country life, was so upset by the news that she fainted.
My traveling companions and I, however, were enchanted with Bath. Originally built atop an underground hot spring by the Romans, who flocked to its mineral waters seeking relaxation and cure, the city languished during the Middle Ages but was rediscovered at the turn of the 18th century. Architect John Wood’s vision for an elegant, homogenous neoclassical cityscape – all built of honey-colored limestone – is as lovely today as it was in its Georgian heyday, especially if one arrives, as we did, in the late afternoon when the setting sun gives it a golden glow.
The following morning we armed ourselves with a map and an iPod loaded with a walking tour of “Jane Austen’s Bath,” a free mp3 download courtesy of the city’s official tourism website (http://visitbath.co.uk
/janeausten/audio-tour), and headed into town. Draped in wisteria and clematis in full bloom, Bath looked like a film set. We wended our way to the Royal Crescent, a particularly beautiful semicircular row of stately Georgian townhouses that overlooks a park. There, despite a crowd of lunchtime sun-seekers, I imagined Jane promenading on a Sunday afternoon. I also pictured her at the Theatre Royal (she was an avid theatergoer) and at the Assembly Rooms, where the grand ballroom is still adorned with its original towering crystal chandeliers.
My favorite glimpse of Jane, however, was along the Gravel Walk, where, thanks to the audio tour, I listened to the touching love scene between Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth from the conclusion of “Persuasion” as I meandered along the same path where it takes place.
If walking the city gave us an overview of her time here, the Jane Austen Centre, a few blocks from where Jane once lived, offered a more intimate glimpse of the author. Knowledgeable tour guides, an informative video, and period furnishings and fashion helped fill in some of the blanks. (The gift shop here is replete with everything from the ever-present tea towels to “I Love Mr. Darcy” keychains.)
Our final stop was the Roman Baths and its famous Pump Room (www.romanbaths.co.uk), where we said a vigorous “yes” to scones and jam and clotted cream, and a polite “no” to the warm mineral water pumped up from the spa below and served by the glassful today, just as it was in Jane’s time.
After Bath it was on to Chawton, the picture-perfect English village where Jane and her mother and sister settled after Mr. Austen’s passing, thanks to the generosity of Jane’s brother Edward, who offered his mother and siblings a “cottage” (actually a large brick house) rent-free.
Today, it’s preserved as the Jane Austen House Museum (www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk), filled with artifacts and information about the author and her family. It was here that she revised her three early novels and wrote “Mansfield Park,” “Emma,” and “Persuasion,” and as I stood beside the tiny round table in the room where she liked to write, I felt I was drawing closer to the real Jane. Outside, a garden bloomed, and the Hampshire countryside beckoned.
After touring the house and garden, we crossed the street for a hearty lunch of homemade soup and bread at Cassandra’s Cup, a tea shop named for Jane’s beloved sister, then set off down the road to Chawton House (www.chawton.org), the Elizabethan manor home which once belonged to Jane’s brother but which now houses a research library dedicated to the study of women’s writing in English from 1600 to 1830. As we were led through the grand rooms, I wondered if the house could have been the inspiration for Netherfield Park, or even Rosings, home of the deliciously overbearing Lady Catherine De Bourgh in “Pride and Prejudice.”
At last, Jane
My final stop was London, and more specifically, the Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library (www
.bl.uk), where I found Jane’s portable writing desk and two manuscript pages from “Persuasion.”
Here at last, I sensed, was the real Jane Austen, the working writer behind the icon. As I looked down at the twin hand-written pages with their crossed-out sentences and hen scratching in the margins, I felt a stir of recognition. Jane was a kindred spirit, a fellow author who knew the rough and tumble of the creative process. It was a most satisfactory conclusion to a most satisfactory trip.
And then my eye fell on the neighboring glass case, which held an original page from Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.” Gazing at that familiar sentence, “Reader, I married him,” I recalled Shannon McKenna Schmidt’s enthusiasm for Bronte country and smiled. Clearly, another chapter in literary travel awaits.