Friday, July 16, 2010

"Only by seeing women in their own homes . . .": Chawton and Alton

Day Seven

"Only by seeing women in their own homes, among their own set, just as they always are, that you can form any just judgement." - Emma

I arrived into Alton around lunch time and I was greeted by the lovely owner of the bed and breakfast there. She (Joan) suggested that I go to Jane Austen's house that afternoon. I had a day-long tour of the area planned for the next day, but she said she didn't think the museum would be part of this. She showed me to my adorable little room, named for Jane Austen, and I took a quick power nap to make up for the lack of sleep from the night before (a squeaky door kept me awake for a lot of the night).

I attempted to follow Joan's directions to the Chawton house. She said that it would be about a 15 minute walk, and that I would in fact have to go through a busy intersection. I followed the path as best as I could tell from the map, but that led me to the edge of a highway essentially. I started to get a little nervous at this point (mostly for my safety). I was trudging through high grass, wearing sandals of course, as the cars noisily whizzed by. I continued on until I saw a sign for Jane's house. Joan said not to follow the signs, because they were for cars, so I ultimately decided to turn back to where I came from and ask for directions. One thing I have certainly learned: never be afraid/ashamed of asking for directions. You wouldn't want people to be lost in your hometown, right?

I eventually found my way, and happened upon an adorable little town, mainly consisting of five houses, Jane Austen's house, a pub called Greyfriars, and the estate and church. Be forewarned that the rest of this account will have its moderately to majorly cheesy moments. I first entered the front parlor, where Jane would have received her guests. There I was able to hover for a few minutes over the very writing desk where she worked on Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. I asked the museum worker if I could take a picture next to the piano (not an original, but probably from the same time period). She asked me to play it for a little while, and she would take a picture of me while I played! She said they "love to have people play". What a great moment (understatement)!

I was really surprised at how many objects there actually came from the family, but I later learned that most of the descendants of the Austen and Knight families are still in the area. Among the most interesting treasures: a topaz cross Jane's brother brought back from his travels overseas, a lock of Jane's hair (sort of creepy yes), and a lock of her father's hair (doubly creepy). Probably my favorite item there was a beautiful quilt, hand-stitched by Jane, Cassandra, and their mother. It is still immaculately in tact, and the colors remain beautifully vibrant!

I'm sure the other museum goers thought me a little strange: I remained in each room for probably 10 to 15 minutes, just soaking it all in. I had to have a picture in her bedroom. I must admit that I got emotional a couple of times - this was when it really hit me. To be in that place where Jane Austen stood, and wrote, and spent time with friends and family - it is such a gift! I will never ever forget it! I had a really difficult time leaving her home, but I knew that I would probably have time to return later if I so desired.

Day Eight

"For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn?" - Pride and Prejudice

My tour guide for the day, Phil Howe, came to pick me up a little bit before 10:00 that morning. I wasn't sure exactly what we would see. I just knew that he would show me some places where Jane would have gone to attend balls and dinners (places that the average person would not be able to find on their own).

Phil came very highly recommended, and Joan told me that one of her guests told her that the Jane Austen tour was "the best day of her life". Pretty great accolades! He asked what I'd like to do that day, and pulled out a map of different locations he wanted to show me. I basically told him that I would like to see as much as he can show me. I knew that I had to take advantage of the opportunity, even if it meant spending more money. Not only does Phil come highly recommended, but he is a historian, a former business professor, a former English major, and just an all-around intelligent man. Even Anne Hathaway was going to take his tour before shooting "Becoming Jane", but the poor thing was too tuckered out to go out that day.

He first pulled out a biography of Jane Austen written by Claire Tomalin. I told him that I was not sure which biography was best, and so I hadn't read any yet. He said very decisively that this one was the best, and that we would be following a route that she provides in Chapter Eight.

I wrote all about this day in my journal already, and it ended up taking me ten pages! Because all of the details may not be quite as interesting to my readers here, I'll provide a shortened version. Phil first took me to one of the homes where Jane would have attended a dance (the home of the Bolton family). The estate now belongs to the family who owns Harrod's in London, and it is their country vacation home for two months out of the year. Can you imagine using a place that beatiful for so short an amount of time!

Phil pulled over near a wide open expanse of country to talk about the landscape with me. He said most of the area is relatively unchanged, except for paved roads and highways. The individual properties have basically remained the same, and many of the estates still belong to the same families who owned them while Jane was alive. I didn't want to tell him this (I was afraid he might not like the comparison), but the land reminds me a lot of La Grange and Schulenburg, where my family owns a farm. He talked about how some of the hedges in the area were only two hundred years old, to which I responded: "That's as old as my country!". It's amazing when you stop to consider how much more history England has in its little pinky finger than the whole of the United States.

We pulled over again near a field of purplish bulb plants, with an occasional purple or red flower sprouting up. He asked if I knew what kind of crop this was, and I answered that I had absolutely no idea. "Poppy flowers - Opium of course!" was Phil's response. It is strictly used for medicinal purposes (morphine, etc.), but this is the same plant used to make heroine . . . those crazy Brits! I then made the association with the Wizard of Oz: Dorothy falls asleep in a field of red poppies.

We went on to some other estates in the area frequented by Jane. Almost every estate has a chapel and a stablehouse. The wealth of the estate was reflected in the stature of the chapel. Some chapels had plaques commemorating the end of family lines (when the last son died without an heir to the property). When this happened, families tried to adopt an heir: Edward Austen inherited the Knight property in Chawton, and therefore became Edward Knight. His ancestors run the Jane Austen Society.

We saw the home of the Bigg Withers; Jane was friends with the daughters of the estate. Their brother proposed to her, and she first accepted only to take back her response 12 hours later. There are no records as to why she said yes, or why she later said no. Phil would know if there were - he was able to quote ANY line from ANY letter relating to Jane Austen (whether it was from her or from a neighbor). We saw the home of Madame LeFroy, whose nephew Tom was rumored to be a romantic interest of Jane's (thus the basis for "Becoming Jane"). There is very little about him in her letters; whatever romance they had was short-lived, but he did later say that he had a "childish love" for Jane Austen.

Phil seems to think that Jane probably never experienced love, although she wrote about it. Many of her letters were destroyed by Cassandra, her sister, so there is a lot that we don't know. I'd like to hope that she knew love in some respect, otherwise how could she write about it so beautifully. She certainly knew what loveless relationships looked like, because throughout her books there is a fear of marriage without love or respect. The idea of love in relationships at that time was novel though, simply because people didn't really have a lot of options: they had to marry someone in their neighborhood because that was all they were exposed to.

We then stopped in Steventon, Jane's birthplace. I knew that it was her birthplace, but I didn't know that the house was no longer there. I really wasn't disappointed at the land being house-less, because it was just as amazing to stand in the spot where she grew up. Poor Phil had to put up with some tears on my part, as I was again overwhelmed with the experience. We stopped in to see the chapel where her father would've preached; it was certainly the most modest of all the little chapels that we saw.

We stopped in at The Vyne after this, a gigantic estate that is rumored to the inspiration for Pemberley or Netherfield (the homes of the heroes in Pride and Prejudice). It is breathtaking - built during the time of the Tudors and still in excellent repair.

We made our way back to Chawton and Alton after that. We stopped by the Knight estate; Jane's brother Edward lived on the estate while she lived just down the road in the Chawton house (which really belonged to him). His house is amazing - exactly what you would picture from reading the descriptions in one of her books. There is a long driveway leading up to the house, and Phil pointed out the window to the room where Jane would've worked on her manuscripts as she looked out over the land. Now the house is a library specializing in early British novels written by females. People working on their doctorate degree can actually live in the stablehouse and use the library for research. Never before did I consider getting a doctorate's degree, but now . . . . hmmm.

Day Nine

I woke up to a lovely breakfast at the B&B. I had the traditional English breakfast - a fried egg, toast, mushrooms, tomatoes, bacon (which has a consistency more like Canadian bacon), and sausage. It was delicious, probably because it was home made. During breakfast, I chatted with an older couple from Scotland. The couple and Joan were funny about phrases that don't seem authentic, like: "Have a nice day!" They were saying that they think that's an impersonal way to say goodbye to someone. After that, I was certainly self-conscious about how I bid them farewell. They also giggled at me when I said "awesome" because it is "so American". They did, however, commend Americans for their enthusiasm.

I headed into Alton after that. I visited a gallery that houses beautiful pottery. They had a lovely garden as well, but unfortunately, the rain kept me from spending a whole lot of time in there. It is a very cute little town - pretty quiet really. I read my book in a cafe for a little while.

What else do you think I did with my remaining time? OF COURSE I went back to Jane's house in Chawton (not by the highway this time). It was much quieter that day, and I just sat on a bench outside of the house for a while, reading Persuasion. I couldn't believe I was reading the book that she literally wrote down just a few feet away!

I parted ways with Joan, dear Alton, and dearest Chawton. I headed to the train station to go to Lyme!

What I'm reading: I finished Pride and Prejudice and started Persuasion. I'm really glad that I read the two of them back to back, because they make for a very interesting comparison. Pride and Prejudice is light-heartedness, misconceptions, and flirting and dancing, while Persuasion is heartache, poor treatment, and loss. Of course as was Austen's style, each has a happy ending. Persuasion certainly has a more melancholy undertone - it makes sense when you consider it was the last book Jane wrote, and at the time she was fairly ill (and probably knew that death was imminent).

Other observations:
-I hear Michael Buble everywhere I go
-People are naturally nice
-to go = take away
-thanks = cheers
-named = called (i.e. My daughter is called Caroline)

1 comment:

  1. Your trip is getting better and better!! I cannot wait to see pictures!