Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Tour through Hampshire--In a Letter from a young Lady--

WHEN Cassandra had attained her 16th year, she was lovely & amiable, & chancing to fall in love with an elegant Bonnet her Mother had just compleated, bespoke by the Countess of ----, she placed it on her gentle Head & walked from her Mother's shop to make her Fortune.--"The Beautifull Cassandra"

Getting to Jane Austen's house in Chawton is not what you'd call straightforward. Take the tube to Waterloo station, take the train to Alton, then a bus from Alton to the Chawton roundabout, then walk 15 minutes through disgustingly charming country lanes. If it's out of the way in this day and age it must have been positively cloistered in its remoteness back in 18whatever.

Today everything went well. The sun came out, for one thing. The birds were singing like it was going out of style. I had a smooth journey all the way, and even missing the first bus out gave me a chance to grab some lunch. The area is quiet and unassuming, grazing sheep in the fields and rabbits scampering around. Even the cars rushing by on the highway sound kind of laidback. And the house just appears, very anticlimatically, around the bend, a little white sign announcing Jane Austen's House. Aside from that, it doesn't look all that different from the neighboring homes (there are thatched roofs here, for christ's sake). Without a sign you might even walk right past it without realizing that some of the greatest novels in the English language were written inside. I pay my four pounds admission fee and pick up a guide, which I don't really need since I already know all the information inside. The little old ladies who run the place are gossiping about neighbors and family members and respective illnesses, which is so hilariously appropriate that I have to bite my tongue to keep from laughing. I wonder if they realize they've just turned into some of Austen's minor characters.
Here's her father's bookshelf with some early editions of her work; a period pianoforte; original letters on display under glass, her topaz cross in a drawer, next the dining parlor, and there it is, The Table, where she wrote and revised her work. I knew it was tiny but I'm still surprised by the size. No wonder pages of Persuasion in the British Library are so small. Squeezed into a corner of the room on a miniscule table.
The house is everything I hoped it would be. Peaceful and lived in, if a bit hallowed as well (This handkerchief was once sneezed upon by Jane's great-great-great nephew!!). You can see her here, gazing out the window into the street, sitting in the garden, walking down the lane while puzzling over how to get Emma and Mr. Knightley together.
I excercized appalling restraint in the bookshop, but I wanted to get things that I couldn't find at home or on the net. I would definitely have bought The Confession of Fitzwilliam Darcy if it hadn't been in hardback (I can't justify hauling it around the UK). As it is I walked away with bookplates, and music, and Emma Thompson's set diaries from Sense and Sensibility. And lots of disappointing pictures of myself posing in front of various things.
Then the kindly little old man (who makes me think of Mr. Woodhouse; resemblance to Austen characters must be one of the requirements for the job) gives me confusing directions on how to catch the bus back and I ramble around Hampshire for a bit, getting only a little bit lost.
And now I'm back in London, and I think I'll have another quiet evening (I didn't hit the Candy Bar after all), planning out my next move. Thursday will be my night on the town. Despite the fact that Blogger's being a total ASS, and I still have no word from my French bank, I am thoroughly, utterly content.
Cassandra smiled & whispered to herself "This is a day well spent."


At 12:55 PM, Blogger JaneFan said...

How perfectly lovely! Hampshire and Chawton definitely sound like they were soothing to your soul. You sound so much more content today!

I must make plans to go back to England soon and see it for myself...

At 10:10 PM, Anonymous Mags said...

Fabulous! Isn't Chawton gorgeous? Did you walk down to the church? Even if you're not churchy, it's still kind of cool.

I wanted to lie down in the road and roll around squeeing when I saw the thatched roofs. :-) One of them was for sale when I was there!!!!

At 8:56 PM, Blogger The Bookish Kind said...

I am sooo green with envy of you and your Chawton visit. I just got back from England and didn't make it to Jane's House.
thanks so much for sharing a litte bit about your day there. It makes me hope that someday I'll get back and see it.


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