On a mild Canberra autumn day members Anna and Marilyn, armed with photos, tourist brochures, maps and sketches, led us on a tour of villages and towns that Jane Austen had lived in or visited during her life and which they, too, have visited on their holidays in England. Their enthusiasm for their subject was matched by that of their listeners. We were particularly grateful to them as both were suffering unpleasant flu-like symptoms.
Anna first spoke of her last two visits (three years apart) to Chawton cottage, noting a marked difference in its appearance and appurtenances, She was delighted to report that the actual writing table Jane used has replaced the replica she saw on earlier visits, although it is now ‘fenced off’ by perspex barriers. She did feel that some of the recent additions did not seem quite authentic, but she appreciated the very warm welcome visitors (particularly JASA members) receive and the general atmosphere of authentic scholarship in the Cottage.
Jane, her mother, Cassandra and Martha Lloyd attended the nearby church which was partially destroyed by fire in 1878, only the tower surviving, but it has been restored. Cassandra and her mother’s graves are in the churchyard.
Marilyn told us that she also visited Chawton, staying in nearby Alton, well known to the Austens and where at one stage the women considered living after Rev. Austen’s death. She and Anna both commented on the smallness of the Cottage which they feel is treated almost reverentially. One room, called ‘The Admiral’s Room’ contains memorabilia of Charles and Frank’s lives and articles associated with the family. The famous quilt is displayed on a bed in a room behind a glass wall.
Steventon, where Jane was born and lived her early life, is today a village hidden among trees, and difficult even to find. The fact that the church and churchyard is deserted is no doubt attributable to the fact that the village boasts only about ten cottages.
Marilyn told us that in Bath historically dressed ‘characters’ are stationed in front of some of the buildings familiar to us through Jane’s and other novelists’ works. The Austen family’s diminishing income during the Rev. Austen’s retirement meant a decline in the standard of their living quarters, the final one being in a very low area of town. Each of the three homes they occupied is identified. The ‘Austen Centre’ and other buildings are filled with placards, posters, photocopies and replicas. Marilyn showed us photos of sites such as Milsom Street and the Gravel Walk, which were of greater interest.
The city of Winchester, the city where Jane died and in whose Cathedral she was buried was also where her nephews, Edward’s sons, went to school. Marilyn and Anna both spoke of visiting there and particularly of the house (not open to the public) in which she died and the Cathedral. We were all horrified to learn how expensive it was to enter the cathedral.
Both also told us about Lyme Regis showing us photos of The Cobb including the notorious steps from which Louisa jumped. These particular steps are known as Granny’s Teeth but this writer could think of other names more indicative of their treacherous appearance –Dragon’s Teeth, perhaps. Anyone so foolish as Louisa certainly did not deserve to win Frederick Wentworth.
Jane stayed in Lyme in 1803 and 1804, which we know, she hated, despite local claims that she ‘loved Lyme Regis’, and the house she stayed in is still to be seen.
Anna and Marilyn both commented that, after seeing lovely peaceful Chawton it is easy to understand why Jane was so unhappy in Bath. Her ‘three or four country families’ are at home in her villages.
Jenny suggested that this year being the 10th anniversary of the formation of the Canberra Group we should celebrate in some way and it was decided that a dinner be held in lieu of our August meeting. Marilyn and Anna offered to host a progressive dinner at their homes on a date to be fixed. Thanks Jenny, Marilyn and Anna.
Next meeting will be on 18th June when we will discuss secondary sources on ‘Sense and Sensibility’.