Thursday, April 24, 2008

Visiting Miss Austen's House

For all the time I've spent in England, I'm ashamed that I hadn't made an effort to visit Jane Austen's home at Chawton before now. She lived there the last several years of her life and wrote all of her novels there. It's a shrine of the first order for people like me who've read everything she wrote and consider themselves a "Janehead."

Someone once asked me why I liked Austen so much. At the time, I couldn't find the words. Since then, the word has been invented: Snark. What a delicious snark she was! But she also had engaging characters and satisfying plots. And reading her works gives such a clear picture of 17th-century British life. It's no wonder so many of us "women of a certain age" get lost in it all.

Getting there was easy. I caught a train from London's Waterloo station to Alton, a trip of about an hour. Then I got a cab that took me to her doorstep (and as luck would have it, a pair of OAPs [Old Age Pensioners--or retirees] were also going there and shared the cab with me--and then paid for it with government-provided tokens).

I spent a wonderful afternoon reading every annotation in the house, seeing family artifacts and refreshing my memory on the details of her life story. Imagine my shock, though, when I learned that she died when she was my very age--41. Creepy!

I was especially interested in the framed copy of her royalty statement. She didn't make a ton from her books in her lifetime, but it was enough to live on (in a house her brother gave her). Since she was against marrying for money, she died a spinster. But she had much family to keep her company and by all accounts was content enough.

One of the coolest artifacts was the table where she wrote all of her novels. I could almost imagine her sitting there in the sun, weaving her intricate plots.

I spent the most time in her bedroom, where she remained during her final illness (cancer, it's believed). It was humble yet cozy. The experience was heightened by the exhibit of the actual costumes from a recent production of Sense and Sensibility.

On my way out the door, I saw a sign saying "No photographs." Well, oops.

I went across the street to the Greyfriars pub and had the most delectable brie baguette (one of the best things about England is the opportunity to shove great hunks of bread and cheese into your mouth at every meal). Then I went back and inspected the barns (with donkey cart for shopping trips to Alton) and then called a cab to take me back to the train station.

My cabbie was utterly unfamiliar with Austen and her works, preferring instead to ask me what Disneyland was like. Oh, the irony.

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