Finding Jane Austen in Chawton

Manchester/Bath UK Trip Journal Day 7

Cassandra’s Cup, Chawton, England

I’m here, Gentle Reader.  I have walked in Jane Austen’s house.  I have stood on her grave (literally).  I have walked in her footsteps.  All of the inauthenticity I felt in Bath has faded as I find myself in reality, breathing air in places Austen once breathed, walking on wood Austen walked on.

But it was a hell of a journey getting here.

Let me start with the train.  The first train, Bath to Southampton, was about two hours, so not so bad.  Again, I met a lovely woman who chatted with me.  Then I got off in Southampton, asked for the train to Winchester, and was told to stay put, it was on that platform.  I did, got on the train, easy peasy, and then, another very kind English person chatted with me, asking where I was and what I was doing abroad.

I got off in Winchester and went to the information ticket booth to ask about the bus station.  Remember, Gentle Reader, I have to travel from Winchester to Alton by bus, a rather perilous journey, as we all know how much I loathe bus travel!  The two passengers in front of me at the window were American!  We shared an “Oh look, Americans!” moment, and discussed where we were from (they were from Chicago).  Apparently, I was the first American they had run into since traveling.  They were also staying in Bath.  They asked what I was doing and I said I was off to Chawton.  “She would probably want to go with you,” the man said, pointing to his wife.  She laughed and said, “I reread Northanger Abbey yesterday as I walked through Bath.”  Yes, I thought.  We are kindred spirits.

We said our goodbyes and well-wishes, and I asked the ticket handler if he knew where the bus station was.  No, he said.  Apparently he doesn’t usually work this station.  He directed me to the other side of the station to people more knowledgeable than himself.  I ran into a man with a lovely Scottish accent who seemed appalled that anyone would have recommended I travel to Winchester to get to Alton.  But he directed me toward the bus station anyway (after we chatted about how much I love Scotland), and I began walking.  “You have good legs?” he has asked.  What could I respond but yes?

So I walked, and after about five minutes, thought to myself, “surely, that’s Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried.”  So I walked in.

Apparently, I had just accidentally found Winchester Castle, not Cathedral, and seen the Round Table.  No lie!  I asked that docent if she could tell me where to find the bus station and the Cathedral, and I still had about ten minutes to go.  So I started walking, and walking, and walking, through town center, past lovely shops and shoppers.  I saw a sign that pointed toward the Cathedral, and I went.

Gentle Reader, I stood on Jane Austen’s grave.  I did.  And I started crying.  I was here.  After all the inauthenticity of Bath, here I was, standing on her bones.  On the ash and dust that was once one of my favorite writers.  Like with Gaskell, I wish I had brought flowers to leave for her, but I hadn’t.  So I stood and thanked her, thanked her for her words and the power of her stories.  And after that (and 7 pound 50 p later), I went to the bus station.

I found it!  And my bus was right there!  I asked my driver about Chawton, and he told me he would drop me off at the roundabout, and it was just a short walk into town.  Easy peasy, I thought, and I sat back to wait.

About 35 minutes later, the bus driver pulls up in the middle of a busy road and says, “Chawton.”  I walked up and he said, “There’s your stop on the way back,” pointing across the street, “and just follow the posted signs.”  I got off the bus, and  I was alone.

I was alone, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a busy highway.  And I confess, Gentle Reader, that I said, out loud, “what the @#&! did I just get myself into?!”

But I am an Intrepid Explorer, so I hiked up my big-girl boots and tromped across the road, only narrowly missing getting hit by a car.

I tromped across the road again.  I had the foresight to take a picture of the streetsigns so I could find my way back (which I haven’t done yet, so who knows if that will go well?).  I tromped across another road, and another, and walked alongside the highway on the encampment.  Again, I confess some horrific language left my mouth as I began cursing and talking to myself, questioning my sanity.

Luckily, there were signs that declared “Jane Austen House” so I followed them.  I was in the middle of nowhere now, no sign of the crowded street before.  I heard birds chirping, and children laughing and playing in the background.  Again, I found myself speaking out loud.  “Jane,” I said, “at least you picked a pretty country.”

And she did.  Chawton was lovely.  Idyllic, even.  And then, it was before me.  Jane Austen’s House.

How to describe that feeling?  It was overwhelming, like the swelling in the chest before a first kiss, or that moment a child laughs at you for the first time.  It was newness, specialness, something beautiful and marvelous all at once.  This was what I missed in Bath.  This feeling, that Jane Austen was with me.

I stood in her garden, Gentle Reader.  I walked in her home.  I saw her ring and bracelet, her patchwork quilt and her tiny writing desk.  It was the tiny writing desk when I lost it, started crying again because here, here was the desk (they think, but are 99% sure) where so many beautiful things were written.  I took picture after picture of the desk.  I took a picture of the window view, what she would have looked at had the desk been at that window.  I walked in her room that she shared with Cassandra, walked through her house and felt her there, felt the presence of Jane Austen in such a beautiful, wonderful way.

I talked with the docents, and one took me back through the house, showing me a few tidbits of fancy I missed.  Jane, her name was, as well, told me about the Wedgwood china that belonged to Jane’s brother, and we saw there, the crest, and marveled over plates Jane herself may have eaten on.  We went back through to the patchwork quilt, and she showed me the evidence they had that the quilt was made of Jane’s and Cassandra’s dresses.

Unfortunately, it was time for me to be getting on, mainly because a group of schoolgirls was about to come through the house, at least 40 of them, and I didn’t want my literary pilgrimage—yes, finally, here it was—to be interrupted by giggles.  I hiked myself across the street to Cassandra’s Cup where I sit, after having eaten a cold sandwich (again) and a scone.  Where I sit, drinking tea, literally in the shadow of Jane Austen’s Chawton House.

In a moment, I will need to dash across the highway again, traveling three hours back for a visit that took approximately two hours, so six hours total of travel to visit Austen’s house for two hours.  But it was worth it, so worth it, in a way that staying another day in Bath would not have been.

It’s time for me to drink my tea and get back to Bath, to pack up for my very long travel back to the States day tomorrow, to find a place to eat and not get lost while doing it.  But I have found what I was looking for, with both Gaskell and Austen: with Gaskell, the material culture angle, and with Austen, the fight between authenticity and inauthenticity.  For both, I have found memories, beautiful, gorgeous memories that I can now share in, that I am now a part of.  I have taken a piece of them away with me, and that, my friends, is what I came for.

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