A writer, reader, and Austen lover spends a year (or more) embarking on a course of study similar to that perhaps undertaken by Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, without the benefit of Colonel Brandon’s library and with room for diversions, digressions, and (hopefully) fun fieldwork.
The day after visiting Jane’s writing desk and portrait in London, I went to Paris. Yes, for the day. It was there so I popped over to squeeze in what I could - a long, exquisite day of mostly walking and a trip up the Eiffel Tower (okay, more like hobbling because I walked everywhere in Reykjavik and had two days of London walking behind me as well. My ankles looked like I was 85 years old. But it was worth it for the view):
View of the Champ de Mars and Ecole Militaire
Paris turned out to be a 20 hour day, so I slept in and caught a later train to Winchester and had just enough time to see the Cathedral and the house on College Street where Jane died before catching my bus to Alton (near Chawton) to reach my hotel.
(May I just say how fabulous the English trains are. I always had seats to myself, the trains arrived on time, and had a wonderful ticker tape like screen to tell you the next stop. They also seemed roomier to me. Frankly, Amtrak could take a page....)
Winchester is delightful. Twisty turny stone or brick streets, archways , streets tucked between the backs of houses with gates and wooden doors. It felt like one big secret garden to me. I could have wandered for hours. The sky was grayish when I arrived at the Cathedral - perfect for photographs. I took many pictures of the outside as there were so many interesting vantage points but here’s the main one:
Inside it’s beautiful and majestic (huge). Jane’s grave is right beyond the desk where you buy tickets, but is cordoned off so you have to go all the way around the Cathedral the other way to reach it. And the walk is fascinating – crypts and paintings and sculpture and stonework. Before I’d been there five minutes the wedding march started and a bride came in the side door with her father, walking behind the - hmm, vicar? Doesn’t sound grand enough.
The bride's name was Sarah. She floated in, pinkcheeked and smiling and lovely. Her groom was German and I just couldn't catch his name during the vows. (I have to say again that I highly recommend touring a church when there's a wedding going on. It adds a certain spirit!)
So I sat down with everyone else and watched her walk up the nave and past the altar back through the where the choir would be, where the ceremony took place. There were about thirty of us in the Cathedral and I followed as many walked towards the back to peek through to watch the wedding, but I focused on the Cathedral itself. I was happy to let it take as long as it took to get to Jane’s grave, to delay the moment. And there was so much to see. Winchester Cathedral is the longest medieval church in the world at 554 feet:
It’s home to Saint Swithun’s tomb:
According to Wikipedia: "or Swithin, Old English: Swīþhūn; died c. 862) was an Anglo-Saxon bishop of Winchester and subsequently patron saint of Winchester Cathedral. His historical importance as bishop is overshadowed by his reputation for posthumous miracle-working. According to tradition, the weather on his feast day (15 July) will continue for forty days."
One of his miracles was to restore to wholeness a woman's basket of eggs maliciously broken by a workman. A little more useful than water into wine, in my opinion, but it depends on which you value more: eggs or wine.
Back through this entrance (above) was where the wedding took place.
Finally I made it around to the grave. To the right is the memorial window. There was a big basket of yellow daisies at the base.
Very different from the grave itself, which is black stone, faded, the letters softened from the feet of tourists and parishioners. I turned from the window and saw the stone. I read it slowly from start to finish:
Reader, I cried. A sudden and unexpected response. I stood dumb, eyes swimming with tears, feeling my reaction a little silly, but also appropriate. She deserved better than a forty something single writer on holiday getting emotional over her bones but there I was.
Maybe it happened because I was tired and hungry (hadn’t eaten lunch), and everything hurt from walking. But in my heart I know it was because I felt like I’d reached Austen Ground Zero. Especially because the church bells started ringing for the wedding. That seemed appropriate too. That she was here where so many people would visit to worship and wed. Her books ended in weddings, so now she would always be in attendance at those in Winchester.
It might have had something to do with the reality behind the words in the information panel nearby (and here I found the only thing I didn’t like – these baby blue boxes with pictures and text inside describing her life and her work. They were very silly looking and weren’t even worthy of a good museum, let alone to clutter the space by her grave):
"Jane's body lies under the floor here in a brick vault." It doesn't get more real than that.
I stood there a long time. Fortunately many in the Cathedral had gotten waylaid by the wedding so I was alone there for ten minutes. I found I just couldn’t leave the spot, so I sat down in the chairs that were for the congregation before the altar and just stayed with her. That’s how it felt. That something of her was there. I’d come so far to see her grave, I wanted to absorb as much of the feeling and space as possible because I was saying hello and goodbye all at once, in a very short period of time.
Despite the majesty of the church, it felt tucked away and intimate. There weren’t that many people. It was around two-thirty. It was still stormy skies outside (a light rain fell throughout the day) but the light was bright and clear. I could have stayed all afternoon but I wanted to find the house nearby where Jane spent her lasts days. I left the Cathedral and walked across a small parking area and through a massive door:
I couldn't believe I didn't end up in another dimension after passing through this door. It was amazing.
Down through the archway you see here, which had a charming bookstore right underneath to the left – so tempting but no time! – then immediately to the left onto College Street. I saw the house ahead on the right and slowed down. In instances like these, when you have so many things to see, there’s a danger of checking them off as complete and going on to the next rather than being in the moment.
So I paused and sat on the wall with a garden across the street and hung out. This is a private residence so a plaque has been erected to note its significance:
But as you can see, the curtains of the first floor rooms are closed. These were Jane and Cassandra’s rooms. The Cathedral is just over a high wall on the side of the street where I sat thinking of Cassandra sitting with Jane’s head on her knee, stroking her hair in the middle of the night long after she was gone.
Here's a picture of the room where she died which I found on, of all places, the BBC's Antique Roadshow's website. Apparently they were there in May of this year and were able to enter the house:
As I headed back to the Cathedral the bells were still ringing for the wedding.
Returning the way I came, I passed the happy bride and groom:
And continued on to the back of the Cathedral looking for the bus station. I then followed the most magical walk – here is the series of photos:
The stone walls had shells mixed in. Wonderful.
This garden appeared when you walked through the door in the pic before it. And over the wall was the Cathedral:
At the end of that street, to the right, I came out near the Guild Hall which was across the street from the bus station. I missed the 4:10, but caught the 4:50 to Alton – the X64. You buy your ticket on the bus – the driver has a machine that prints a receipt and everything - a double decker –so I sat on the top for the 45 minute ride.
I had the ask the driver to let me know when I should get off as he stopped at places not on the list I’d printed off before I left (yes, I printed timetables and bus schedules, I’m a freak). Lucky me – there was a stop right across from the hotel!
I went straight down to dinner – starving – hadn’t eaten lunch. Here is the dining room that I had all to myself:
My waiter was also named Chris. He was from Canada and so nice. He got me a pot of tea though it wasn’t on the menu, and an extra order of mashed potatoes. I had a wonderful orzo with eggplant and squash and artichokes:
After dinner I walked out into the garden taking pictures. There was much to admire:
The wedding theme persisted – I noticed that one of the other rooms downstairs was set up for a wedding reception in purple, my favorite color:
Upstairs I put on pajamas and indulged in my guilty pleasure – British TV. The comedy I watched had a Pride and Prejudice theme so it was a perfect end to the day - Miranda, starring Miranda Hart, who was in Hyperdrive and a couple of French and Saunders shows if I'm not mistaken. I enjoy her so much. She just strikes a chord with me. I couldn't find the episode on YouTube ("Excuse"), but I found the preview. It's not on Netlix, unfortunately, but you can watch many episodes on YouTube if you dig her as well:
I'm program director for literary arts for my state arts council. I direct the state Poetry Out Loud program for the NEA. I have degrees. I teach writing. I've published my work. I write novels, poetry, and plays. I love chocolate, am talkative, a realist and idealist, prefer flannel to silk, am a real blonde, and consider books my life - reading them, writing them, smelling them, tasting them (yeah, I've licked a page or two in my time. Who hasn't?).
Jane Austen: Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon, Penguin, 1974 (intro Margaret Drabble)
Claire Tomalin: Jane Austen, A Life. Vintage Books, New York, 1997.
Jane Austen: Persuasion - Penguin Classics Series, edited by Gillian Beer. April, 2003.
Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho with intro by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Dover Publications, New York, 2004 (originally G.G. and J. Robinson, London, 1794 and titled: The Mysteries of Udolpho, A Romance; Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry.
Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey, with intro by Alfred Mac Adam, Columbia University. Barnes & Noble classic, New York, 2005. (1818)
Jane Austen: Mansfield Park, with intro by Amanda Claybaugh, Columbia University. Barnes & Noble classic, New York, 2004 (1814)
Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility with intro and notes by Laura Engel. A Barnes and Noble Classics Book. New York, 2004. (1811)
Jane Austen: Emma, A Signet Classic with an Afterword by Graham Hough. The New American Library of Canada, Limited, 1964.
Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice -The World's Classics edition, edited by James Kinsley, with intro by Isobel Armstrong. Oxford University Press, 1990.