WALKING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF JANE AUSTEN?

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UPDATE: The crowd funded book on Indiegogo, you will get in the post, is now at a soaring 50%!

Well it can’t be all bad that in the Hampshire fundraising frolics this month there is now one of our posters trumpeting Dragon In The Post hanging in the home of one of the greatest novelists of all time, Jane Austen! The house is barely 10 miles from where I’m staying, in the gentle village of Chawton in Hampshire, so no writer worth his ink could fail to make the little pilgrimage to the charming home of the woman who changed the face of the English novel forever. There is little either quaint or twee about the way they have created an excellent museum there, where I committed an appropriate act of sacrilege by laying my hand on the writing table of Jane herself.

It was also a little treat to cross swords with one of her biographers, Deidre Le Faye, who I found with the house manager Ann Channon sitting on a bench in the lovely garden. Ann came as a cleaner 23 years ago and has now progressed to proud guardian, of a home and family story that can at times move her to tears. Behind a pair of magnificent coloured sun glasses Deidre meanwhile raised an understandably dragonish eye to my own efforts, and indeed ignorance about Austen, although also pointed out that in Austen’s day, and indeed from the days of Shakespeare and the first printed ‘Bookes’, these things were often done by private patronage or by subscription. So we are in fact in illustrious and honourable company! I did not know that Austen, who did not move from her home near Basingstoke to the house until 1807 and only updated some of her most famous works like Pride and Prejudice there, published anonymously or under the tantalising label ‘By a Lady‘. Never married, living in the house with her brothers for a time, who both became admirals in the British Navy, I was also astonished to learn that Jane died at the tender age of only 41, perhaps of tuberculosis. How sad.

Like ‘The Birthplace‘, the Shakespeare family home in Stratford On Avon, I’m not entirely convinced by shrines to writers, or what they exactly tell you about the landscape of the creative imagination, kingdoms to themselves. But it was lovely to wander round, to see that perfectly neat Austen handwriting, amid the delicate bonnets and recreated Georgian dresses, to hear Deidre dismiss with a disgusted snort the claim that one especially ugly portrait might be authentic, as her TLS article had long established, then to catch snatches of the fictional miracle in the facts of living that accompanied such a very realistic author: the face of an unctuous Mr Collins in a portrait one of her clerical relatives, or the confident echo of that immortal opening “It is a truth, universally acknowledged” in the often ironic pattern of her busy and practical letters. Then to the navy sword her brother Charles was given by none other than Simon Bolivar and the tale of how the trust brought home her little Turquoise ring last year, proudly displayed with two little Topaz crucifixes, replicas of which are soon to find their way into the groaning gift shop, filled with pricey Austen nick-nacks.

Like Chawton, that has more houses now but probably the same number of inhabitants as in Austen’s day, and so unlike the swelling new town of Basingstoke, that has helped to swamp glorious and astonishingly beautiful Hampshire with tarmac and Leisure Parks, it was all rather genteel, as the sun shone down in the pretty garden, through the graceful yew trees that have grown mightily since the days when Austen was relatively unknown and the younger saplings perhaps couched the house privy. A hungry young family of swallows dipped from their nest in the room beside the gift shop, as Deidre kindly signed a biography for me and a collection of edited letters, and with hope of my own project still very much alive, all seemed ordered and right with the world. Perhaps the spirit of genius will come along with us, but what our own magnificent £1900 would have been and done in Austen’s time! The family were never rich, incidentally, nothing compared to the likes of a Mr Darcy, although one of the brother’s was adopted by a finer family, so got to make it to one of the big houses. If Jane, who called one of her publishers a rogue, might have been bemused by crowd funding, the Internet or the plight of the modern author, I wonder what she would have thought of the flying machine that plans to take us skyward this Wednesday, or my efforts to walk the 100 miles of the South Downs Way. Perhaps her eye and pen would have thrilled at the richness of the Hampshire wheat fields at this time of year, the magic blue glint of a field of wild borridge across the rolling lanes and the numinous glow of the super moon that hangs in the night skies, or perhaps found more meat and matter in the simple facts of survival. If you want to visit Jane Austen’s House, that got 50,000 visitors last year, the times are below, or indeed if you want to support a modern author you can find a novel sent to you, in the post, by going to Indiegogo and BACKING THE PROJECT

David Clement-Davies July 2014

The photo is a pubic domain image of Jane Austen’s House Museum, which is at http://www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk/. The opening times vary throughout the year but it closes beteen 4.30 and 5pm. Tickets are £7.50 for Adults, £6 Senior Citizens and £2.50 for children between 6 and 16. Deidre Le Faye’s studies of Austen include Jane Austen – The World of her novels published by Frances Lincoln and Janes Austen’s Letters published by OUP.

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