We arrive at the magical day I'd been dreaming of for many years!
The day after my visit to Winchester I woke up in my charming little room at the Alton Grange so happy because I’d slept well but I had the best day of all ahead of me: a visit to the Jane Austen House Museum – Jane’s home – also known as Chawton Cottage.
This is where Jane’s writing life came back to life, after the grief over her father’s death and moving around to several places in Bath, the rectory in Adlestrop and also Stoneleigh Abbey. Finally she had a place that felt like home again—peaceful, beautiful, with a garden she loved. And it was here that she resurrected previous work and wrote new novels that were subsequently published, two posthumously.
It was a gorgeous day!
I thought I could take a taxi to Chawton (the map on the Jane Austen House Museum – JAHM from now on – site wasn’t at all clear about how to walk there, in my opinion. It looks easy, but once you're standing there with the map and no real street signage, it's not), but there was some conference in the area that was monopolizing all of them so I took the bus right outside the hotel.
I was told too late about the taxi problem to catch the right bus, so had to wait an hour for the next, fretting, I don’t mind telling you, all the while about how late I would be for the class. It started at 11:00 and the bus didn’t come until 10:50. I really didn't want to walk in late to the class and miss anything.
But, lucky me, the bus driver was the same gentleman who had dropped me off the night before! I told him where I was going and he said he’d get me as close as he could, which he did. I was dropped off at a roundabout (middle of nowhere it looked like) and told to cross it to the other side and keep going.
I managed to dodge the cars enough to follow this direction, saw the sign for Chawton and JAHM, and found myself on a pleasant path past gorgeous cottages (some thatched!), with a sign not long after indicating I was on the right track.
Here's a thatched cottage - isn't it lovely?
I raced in, told them who I was and was directed to a building on the other side of the kitchens where the class was being taught. I arrived in time to be next to introduce myself and you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone was British except for me. I think I really surprised them, which I don’t mind doing! It was interesting to be the foreign person. As happened often on the trip, I found myself speaking more carefully, as if this would make up for not having their marvelous accent.
Everyone was giving a little background, then mentioning the character they considered the Ideal Heroine, which was the topic of the class. Or, how to write the ideal heroine.
I chose Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables. Every head nodded in agreement and I was no longer the American stranger.
I don't want you to think the other people were not being nice to me! They were welcoming and talked to me during the break, surprised that I'd come all that way for a class (until I explained the pilgrimage part, which they loved the idea of). One nice lady, when she discovered I'm crazy about dogs, launched into a long story about the strange medical needs of her two year old retriever - I won't gross you out with them here.
We made a list of qualities ideal heroines should have, then were sent off to do writing exercises. Many people stayed in the room, I made a beeline for the garden. How could one not write in the garden?
I sat in a bench to work on my assignment and spent several minutes just glorying in the fact that I was sitting in Jane’s garden, writing, and taking a class with her great-great-great-great-great niece, Rebecca Smith, also a novelist: Rebecca Smith - Amazon .
If you’d like more detail about the workshop and the exercises, go here for a post I wrote about it for The Writer’s Edge: Writing the Ideal Heroine
Back to the garden - this is where I sat to do my writing assignments:
I'm writing a novel about my great-grandmother, Rose, who took in a boarder who was a minister, 28 years her junior (she was 83) and fell madly in love with him! She was a rather cold woman, I'm told, so I'm fascinated by the story, how she gave in to her feelings at that age. I respect and admire that she did. So I'm exploring the possibilities of how it all happened and what it's like to feel one's sensual/romantic side awaken so late in life. The assigments were geared towards character and helped me dig into some good scenes related to her.
The class was four hours (lovely but much too long). I had about 45 mins for lunch during the break and spent it across the street in Cassandra’s Cup:
They would NOT sell me a cup from the fantastic display above:
Lunch was good except for the chutney in my sandwich (what is it with chutney???) and one of the women from the class who also came in for lunch stood at my table telling me every prize she'd ever won for her writing (I wouldn't have minded a good conversation but this was all her trying to impress me, which was so odd. As an American, I'd never heard of these prizes. Not to be mean, but I just wanted her to leave so I could enjoy my lunch!). I got away as soon as I could.
They have a full tea but I didn’t have enough time. AND, I discovered they are a bed and breakfast! So you can stay there if you are visiting the house. Will do next time. Here's their contact info: Cassandra's Cup.
More writing exercises, then I was free to explore. I wandered into the house and took my time checking out the rooms. As it was later in the day (after 3:00), it wasn’t crowded. Here are some pictures from inside:
Lock of Jane's hair!
The famous writing table:
Two women who walked into the room ahead of me touched the desk but I didn't. Too many things can be destroyed by the continued touching of human hands. If you go, please don't touch! That's what the plexiglass is there for.
The floors were very creaky. No sneaking around in that house. Whenever I had the good fortune to be alone in a room I stopped and thought about how it might feel to live there. The sounds of the staff moving about the house and courtyard, the sunshine seeping quietly through the windows onto the floor (there was a definite silent aspect to the sunshine, and I kept thinking that perhaps it had time traveled from her days there somehow. Like the house, it knew Jane). So peaceful there.
What I especially loved about the house was that there was SPACE. The rooms weren't cluttered with papers and books and furniture and electronic stuff like our houses are. There were three or four pieces of furniture. Small cases for books (there must be books, but they can turn into clutter too if not checked), a table and chairs, or just a few chairs. Simple. It allowed the space of the house to participate in a way my own house doesn't (must fix that). You could breathe and walk and there seemed to be more light.
Here's Jane's room - that's her lace (she made it!) over the fireplace:
Can’t you imagine sitting there before the fire, reading, sewing, or writing?
I saved Jane’s room for last. I had a gift from my goddaughter, Emma (she’s 9), made for me as a ‘safe travels’ talisman. Here's a pic of me wearing it the night before I left. Isn’t it cute? Purple, my favorite!
I was determined to leave something for Jane in her bedroom, and had planned to write her a note on some paper I made by hand during an 18th Century Festival at Johns Hopkins earlier in the year in March, but I couldn’t find the paper before I left (later I saw it in plain sight when I returned home – I think packing produces amnesia so you can't locate items you need for your trip).
When I walked into her room, I decided I would leave Emma’s gift. As a namesake of Austen’s novel, I didn’t think she’d mind. I’ll tell her the story when she’s old enough to understand its meaning and I’m fairly certain she’ll be excited to know that her gift lives on in the house (the staff keeps these items left for Jane).
And here’s Emma’s gift to me, now a gift for Jane. I hung it on the doorknob where no one would see if for a while (I hoped):
Some shots outside:
Knowing I didn’t have long before I had to walk back (I was going to attempt it using the map) to Alton so I could get to the train station to head back to London, I started the walk up to Chawton Library, the Great House where her brother, Edward Knight lived.
Some houses and a farm along the way (about a 10 minute walk):
And the house!
No time to go up the drive, it had closed by then anyway. I stopped off at St. Nicholas Church instead, to visit Cassandra and Mrs. Austen’s graves:
The graves themselves (when you walk through the charming gate into the churchyard, pass the church on your left, then turn left into the yard there. The graves are at the back in a separate plot).
These made me sad also, but in a good way. There was something very steadfast and elegant about these two graves. Something indomitable about them.
It was also, technically, the last part of my trip. My Jane pilgrimage was, technically, over. It was very quiet and green in that churchyard. I almost wanted to just sit there and miss my train and never go back! But, of course, one must be responsible and return to one’s house and job. I just hate that.
I raced back and attempted the walk. I ended up going around the roundabouts (two of them, connected) twice, always ending up back where I started. So I went back to Chawton to try the bus but it had already left.
Hot, tired, annoyed, I crossed the street to the Greyfriar Pub to use their phone. Here's the pic from their website, mine was too dark:
Serendipity found me again. I asked the bartender for a phone so I could call a taxi and a gentlemen standing at the bar offered to drive me instead. He was about late fifties, gray hair, tall and lean, nice, polite. My mother would have been horrified because I didn’t hesitate to say yes!
The bartender, who had come back with the phone found out I was catching a ride with Trevor, as he introduced himself, and told me, ‘It’s okay, he owns the place,’ so I knew I was in good hands.
It was also 5 p.m. and I had to catch a rail replacement bus (the train problems followed me all the way to Alton on this trip!) with a stop in – can’t remember now - and then to Waterloo.
Trevor had a very nice car, a Lexus, I think, and it was my first time sitting on the wrong side. It made me quite dizzy on the roundabouts. He was very considerate and engaged me in conversation about Jane’s novels, telling me he liked Mansfield Park the best as Fanny was a sensible girl who didn’t get caught up in emotional drama. Though I’m not a huge fan of MP, I appreciated that view and agreed she was very sensible. His second favorite was Persuasion.
So when you visit the JAHM, make sure to have lunch or dinner at the Greyfriar and tell Trevor I sent you. I’d love to send people to him to repay his generosity. It’s right across the street from JAHM, next to Cassandra’s Cup (you can have tea at CC's instead of a meal and do both!):
Here’s a link to the Chawton Library site, the ‘how to visit us’ part. You’ll find the maps, suggestions for places to stay and a link at the bottom to the Stagecoach website for bus timetables for the 64 and X64. There is a bus stop right outside the JAHM. Literally, right next to the house.
One last thing - here's the plaque on the Jane Austen House Museum. It got me teary because it talks about how British and American fans got together to put up the plaque. I'm such a geek.
It was such a marvelous day. If you've considered going, just go. You won't regret it. It just feels so satisfying to 'visit' her. I'm sure she would love to sit and have tea with us and talk books and writing. Even if she can't meet us there, it's nice to stop by anyway!
One last look:
A day later I had an absolutely lovely tea at the Orangery next to Kensington Palace with Jane Odiwe who wrote Willoughby's Return and Mr. Darcy's Secret. Here's her website to check out her work: Jane Odiwe. So I thought I'd write about that in a final post, and include a magical exhibit about secrets in the gardens, related to the Enchanted Palace exhibit that was going on.
Until then, Happy New Year!