On Saturday I went to Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, Hampshire. It’s where she spent her last eight years, was reportedly at her happiest, and wrote her novels Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. I found it a wonderful experience going to ‘her’ house, and far, far superior to my rather disappointing trip to the Jane Austen Society’s house in Bath, which I visited last summer. The Austens’ house, sitting at the junction of the two roads going through the village, is perfectly situated for a woman interested in observing others. Anyone going in and out of the village would have passed by Jane’s parlour window, where she would sit writing at her tiny (it really is tiny!) writing table. The Austens lived at the heart of this small, rural community, and this settled, comfortable, peaceful existence near friends and family and not far from where Jane grew up, would provide the perfect atmosphere for Jane to write her final three novels.
Chawton is a beautiful, quintessentially English village. There are rows of teeny tiny cottages with thatched rooves and little wooden dormer windows; ivy covered, grander brick houses, standing in their own grounds; a village hall; paddocks for horses; a large church with moss covered, centuries old gravestones, and finally, the grand Chawton House, Jane’s brother’s home, a magnificent, pretty flint mansion that sits apart from the rest of the village, gazing benevolently over the land it once used to own. I could easily see, despite the swarms of tourists that now fill the street, taking photos and talking excitedly, how happy Jane must have been here. I could also appreciate what inspiration she must have found, especially in the writing of Emma, from the motley crew of villagers, a mix of poverty stricken cottagers and more well to do gentry, living side by side in this delightful slice of the English countryside.
I loved walking around the beautiful gardens, planted with a variety of fragrant and colourful flowers, that surround the Austen’s house. Inside, the cool, light filled rooms filled me with joy, as I pondered how pleasant, how comfortable, how lovely, life must have been here. However, what impacted me the most was the sheer number of people who had descended on the village on a sunny day in July, anxious to see where their favourite novels had been written, to touch the walls their heroine had touched, to walk the paths she would have trod as she moved from room to room within her house. There was a conference on, at Chawton House, and almost one hundred enthusiastic American visitors had come especially, sporting their name badges and talking with such enthusiasm about the novelist who meant so much to them that they had come all the way across the Atlantic just to set eyes on where she had once lived. It made me stop, and think about what it is that inspires such devotion, such interest, such affection, when it comes to Jane Austen? Why is she so enduringly popular, so mythologised, so sanctified, almost? I don’t know about everyone else, but it made me think about why I feel the way I do about Jane Austen, and why it meant so much to me to see her home and her surroundings. So here it is, the story of Jane Austen, and me.
It wasn’t love at first sight, I can’t claim that. I was a precocious child, and read constantly from the age of 3, but my tastes were not exactly literary. At 11, tired of me reading nothing but Babysitter’s Club books, my mum bought me a copy of Emma and told me to read it. I had heard of Jane Austen, of course, and anxious to be ‘well read’, and impress my English teacher, I eagerly began reading. I barely managed to make it half way. Everyone spoke in ridiculous, long winded, non sensical sentences, nothing exciting happened, and I couldn’t make head nor tail of what was going on. Poor Emma got shoved on a shelf, I reached for the latest Babysitter’s Club instalment, and Jane got ne’er a backwards glance. Fast forward three years or so and I was on holiday in a rainy Ireland with my mother and her best friend, insufferably bored, as only teenagers can be, with no TV and nothing to do. The only book in the house was, as luck would have it, Emma. I languidly opened the pages, and to my surprise, a world of colour, of hilarity, of nuances and sideward glances, of love, and laughter, and wonderful, witty prose, sprang up before me.
How could I not have seen this before?! I wondered, as I devoured the pages. I laughed out loud, I gasped in shock, I wept tears of joy. Jane Austen knew, she understood, the vagaries of the human soul. She had a gift for the absurd, a perfect eye for character, and a deliciously acidic pen. With an arched eyebrow and a sardonic smile, she brought to life people who were real; recognisable, three dimensional, flawed yet loveable characters, who were fresh and modern and alive, who felt deeply, who loved and yearned and suffered, who laughed and wept and lived lives that were not so very different from my own. Her world was not something that was archaic, irrelevant, or boring, as I had once thought, and I knew that I would never be able to get enough of it. As soon as Emma‘s pages were closed, I sought out more; Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Mansfield Park…all exquisite, in their own ways, and all filled with the same magical qualities; the same lively, critical, yet kindly, pen.
Now, at the age of 24, my copies of Jane Austen’s novels are tatty, well thumbed, adored belongings that I will never part with. Each has been read several times, and there is no balm greater for when my soul is troubled than one of these precious volumes. I think this is why I love Jane so; whenever my life has spun out of my control, whenever my heart has been broken, my hopes dashed, my disappointments greater than my joys, she has been there, and what’s more, she knows how I feel. How can any woman who has ever loved and lost read of Anne Elliott in Persuasion without a pang, without tears of recognition, and without whoops of joy, her own heart renewed with hope, when at last, Anne gets her greatest wish? Who can fail to understand Marianne’s devastation at Captain Willoughby’s heartless treatment, and who can’t share Elinor’s tears as she fears her life has crumbled underneath her? Who hasn’t felt Emma’s shame as Mr Knightley, her greatest friend, reproaches her for her thoughtless behaviour? And who hasn’t been a Miss Bates, or a Harriet, feeling small and insignificant, desperate for a word of kindness, a saviour?
The whole of life is within these six novels; the hopes, the fears, the joys, the disappointments, the loves, the losses, the friendships, and the laughter that mark all of our lives in some form or another. Her words encourage, inspire, motivate, soothe, comfort, and heal. Many a time I have opened my favourite Jane Austen, Persuasion, with a heavy heart, and by the end, I am soaring on the wings of possibility again, and rejoicing in the beauty of life. No, my life might not turn out perfectly, and I may not get the happy ever after I desire, but Jane Austen helps me to believe that it could, and she also reminds me, through her own life, and those of her characters, that it doesn’t matter if I don’t, because life is not just about a wedding day, but about taking chances, about loving everyone with all your heart, about friendship, about passion, about kindness, and about personal growth and redemption. Romance does not just exist between lovers, it exists everywhere around us. Romance is in the beauty of a dew drenched lawn; a quiet moment spent sitting with a cup of tea in the early morning, when the world is at peace; a brisk walk through country lanes; a pleasant family meal, sharing food and laughter; and the intimate, understanding conversations held between close friends. Life is a constant romance between the soul and the world it exists within, and it is this everyday romance, this quiet beauty we can find in the ups and downs of ordinary life, that Jane Austen brings to life effortlessly on her pages. I wouldn’t be without her books for the world; they have contributed to who I am. That is why I love Jane Austen, and why I felt so happy as I toured the beautiful house she lived in. She must have found peace there; joy, and contentment. I am glad, because that is what she has brought to me, and I want her to have felt the same, to have been happy, to have enjoyed her life, as she has encouraged me to enjoy mine.
If you’ve never read Jane Austen, or have read her once, and been underwhelmed, I want to encourage you to give her a try, or another one, if necessary. On each re-read, the experience gets richer. Characters become dearer, witticisms become funnier, nuances previously missed jump out afresh. Look beyond the antiquated language and the uneventful plots compared to today’s page turners and you will find absolute brilliance, and words that will become treasured companions as you journey along the road of life.