Monday, October 10, 2005

A Fun Day Out with Jane Austen

We planned to take out daughter to the Hans Christian Anderson exhibit at the British Library, but we were too late. It had closed the week before. Foiled in my original attempt to improve Eloise’s mind through literature (after all, she was named after literary heroine), I suggested that we drive out to Hampshire to visit Jane Austen’s house. Groans all around. “Who is that stupid Jane Austen and why do we have to visit her boring old house?” And from my husband came the lament that it was quite a long drive just to commune with some “namby pamby”woman’s writer. Still, I had just seen the latest feature film version of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley and there was no putting me off.

Following an inauspicious start but with the promise of a slap-up pub lunch in a pretty English village, we set out for Chawton, home of the Jane Austen House and Museum. We stopped for the promised lunch at The Chequers (tel: 01256 862605), in Well near Odiham. This is an attractive pub featuring a vine covered terrace, cosy rooms with good food, good beer, attentive staff and appreciative locals, most of whom had on riding clothes or were walking dogs.

After lunch and a ten minute drive, we arrived at Jane Austen’s pleasant 17th century house where she lived with her mother and sister from 1809 to 1817. Her years in the house were her most productive and it was there that Austen wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion while revising Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility which she had written some years earlier.

Inside, the house is filled with everyday objects used by Jane and her family including furniture, dishes, jewellery and examples of needlework as well as pictures and correspondence relating to her writing. One of my favourite objects was a letter about Pride and Prejudice, written by a bed stricken Winston Churchill during the war, where he described “how he envied these people their quiet life”.

Even Eloise was struck by the small size and humble nature of Austen’s writing table which measured no more than 2 feet in diameter. “She wrote all those stories on that!” Eloise was also interested in the fact that Jane used the creaking door into the front dining room to alert her to intruders during her writing sessions whereby she would hide her work. This initiated a lively Q&A as to why women in the 18th and 19th century hid their writing and often used boy’s names to get published.

The bookstore within the house also has an extensive collection of Austen’s work including rare editions as well as biographies, literary criticism and works related to the period. Hard core fans will be delighted.

The beautifully tended gardens surrounding the house contain plants, shrubs and herbs that would have been used in gardens during Austen’s day. Also interesting is the little donkey cart which Jane used during her mysterious last illness when she was too weak to walk unattended, which can be found in the old Bakehouse.

Following our visit to the house, we had tea at Cassandra’s Cup Tea Rooms and Bed & Breakfast (Tel 01420-83144) across the road which had excellent cakes and where a double room with bath will set you back £55. We then walked the five minutes to the lovely St Nicholas Church, resting place of Austen’s mother and sister and had a peak up the road at the “Great House”, Chawton House, which had belonged to Austen’s brother and would have been most useful in teaching Austen how it felt to be a poor relation which she so eloquently described in her books.

On the drive home, I asked for my family’s critique of their day out with Jane Austen. As Jane Austen often does, she had worked her magic on husband and daughter. Gone were references to “stupid” and “namby pamby”. Eloise wanted to know more about this lady. That night, we took out the 10 year old, 4 hour long BBC production of Pride and Prejudice and although some was lost on her, Eloise understood the spirit and intelligence of Elizabeth, the haughty attraction of Darcy and the pure romance of the thing. “Will they get together in the end?” she kept asking.

Addendum – Getting to Chawton

To reach Jane Austen’s house without a car is detailed on the website, which from London would involve a train and bus ride and a walk. My suggestion for fans of Austen would be to first visit the interesting and historically significant nearby city of Winchester, particularly the Cathedral where she is buried and then make your way to Chawton. A good place to both eat and sleep in Winchester is the Wykeham Arms.

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