Persuasions #9, 1987 Pages 31-32
Travelling in the Steps of Jane Austen
CELINE M. KEAR
To the discriminating traveller, there is something unappealing in the very idea of a bus tour. Certain images immediately come to mind: early morning risings, long travelling hours in sardine-like fashion with less than compatible travelling companions, subjection to the same itinerary as thousands of other travellers during the peak summer season.
We certainly had all of these preconceptions – and more. For my husband and me, the way to travel had always been the freedom of a rented car. This is how we had made innumerable trips to Europe. However, all preconceived notions were immediately thrown aside – certainly by me – when I received the tempting brochure advertising “A Classical Jane Austen Tour in England.” For one who is a confirmed “Janeite” who belongs to both the North American and the English Jane Austen Societies, who re-reads Jane Austen’s incomparable novels every year, here was an organized tour not to be resisted. My husband had some reservations about a seventeen-day overdose of an author he had read but little; however, for an amateur historian, the opportunity to see “Jane Austen’s England” was appealing.
Now, after seventeen days of travelling in the most beautiful parts of rural England – Surrey, Hampshire, Kent – we can speak with confidence of the major advantages of a holiday such as we have enjoyed.
Travelling as the JASNA group, we had access to many places that the ordinary tourist would not see. The purpose of the trip was to explore the sights and villages associated with the life of Jane Austen and her novels; and for our group, many doors were open.
Jane was familiar with the life of the gentry and the aristocracy that she described in her novels and we were allowed a brief but intriguing glimpse into this world. In her letters she has left charming accounts of her visits to Godmersham House in Kent, the stately home that her brother inherited and that some Jane Austen scholars believe was in her mind when she described Rosings in Pride and Prejudice. This house has been recently purchased by the owner of the huge Sunly Company in England and is not open to the public. However, a visit from the Jane Austen Society merited a delightful tour by the manager of the estate.
Goodnestone House, with one of the most beautiful gardens in England, is another estate with which Jane Austen had family connections and to which she has described her visits. We were shown through the house by the present owner, Lord Fitzwalter, and Lady Fitzwalter graciously served us tea in the exquisite eighteenth-century drawing room.
At nearby Rowling House, the owner was also proud to escort us personally through his domain and remind us of the Jane Austen connections. Stoneleigh Abbey in Oxfordshire, the seat of Jane’s maternal ancestors, is open to the public. However, not every group of tourists is escorted by Baron Leigh himself (a Lord of the second creation, as he kept telling us, although the significance of this we did not fully understand!) and sips sherry with him in the library.
Many tourists have enjoyed the sights and pleasures of Bath. When our group walked about the city, we had a guide par excellence. Anne Marie Edwards, distinguished author and Jane Austen expert, was with us for a full day of walking as we explored the Bath of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Indeed, her book “In the Steps of Jane Austen” formed the itinerary for our tour and all ten of us (yes, just ten – no being cramped like sardines on a JASNA tour) were provided with copies beforehand in order to familiarize ourselves with the places to be visited on our tour. We did indeed walk “in the steps of Jane Austen.” We climbed Box Hill, scene of the famous picnic in Emma. We visited Lyme Regis and we too, like Tennyson many years ago when being shown where the Duke of Monmouth’s troops landed, exclaimed, “Don’t talk to me of Monmouth. Show me the exact spot where Louisa Musgrove fell.” All lovers of Jane Austen’s last novel would understand his remark!
The tour enabled us to meet many people whom we would not ordinarily have encountered on a trip to England. We enjoyed our visits with the proprietors of the various stately homes. There were many other happy encounters. When we visited the beautiful Hampshire village of Steventon where Jane Austen was born and where she lived for many years, there was a special acknowledgement of our presence during the Sunday church service. Afterwards we gathered outside the church in the shade of the huge yew tree mentioned in the Domesday Book and met many of the villagers. A special luncheon followed at the home of one of them where about twenty people gathered to say thank you through us to JASNA for financial contributions to the upkeep of the twelfth-century church.
A similar encounter followed at the beautiful little village of Godmersham, where the church has similarly benefited from JASNA contributions. At the luncheon hosted for us there in the beautiful garden of a private home, a special guest was one of Jane Austen’s descendants, a great great grandson of Francis, who brought along many intriguing bits of Austen family history. His rather offhand fashion of passing around a valuable notebook ordinarily kept in a bank strongbox and worth several thousand pounds made us all feel a little nervous. The village of Godmersham has recently published an exquisite limited edition of Pride and Prejudice, we were able to procure copies.
We were special guests of the annual meeting of the English Jane Austen Society, held every year in Chawton, the village from which “all her works were sent into the world.” A private dinner followed with members of the executive of the Society. I was especially pleased that my dinner companion was Anthony Trollope, descendant of the family of the famous novelist.
During the tour we explored country lanes, old footpaths and ancient churchyards and on one of our excursions in the footsteps of Jane Austen, we found a little bit of Canadiana. One sunny morning after visiting the picturesque Surrey village of Bookham, where Jane visited her godfather the Reverend Samuel Cooke, we walked to the neighbouring village of Meikleham in pursuit of Fanny Burney, an eighteenth-century novelist admired by our heroine. We visited the church where she married her French count and in the churchyard we discovered the tomb of the Canadian prime minister, R.B. Bennett, who spent the last years of his life in Meikleham. (Later, as we continued our own travels a visit to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight reminded us of another Canadian prime minister, Sir John Thompson, who died there while visiting Queen Victoria.)
Finally, a tour such as this was indeed a marvellous, albeit informal, seminar not just on Jane Austen but on Regency England, its architecture, cultural life, literature and history. Several leading Jane Austen scholars spent time with us. Each member of our group had something special to contribute. It was, for my husband and me, one of our most memorable holidays. Priscilla Moxley was the superb organizer of this “special interest” tour. Our guide, Hermione Gregory (and her Shakespearean actor husband) delighted us all. And of course it is to the tour leader, Mr. J. David Grey, well known to all JASNA members, that all the tour participants will be forever grateful. He was a leader sans pareil. His knowledge of Jane Austen’s England, his acquaintance with so many people – authors, booksellers, curators, descendants even – who are part of the Jane Austen world, his unfailing and unflagging attention to ensuring our full enjoyment of the trip, delighted us all. As to the tour participants, seldom had my husband and I travelled with more congenial companions. With them we shared “the pleasures of Friendship, of unreserved Conversation, of similarity of Taste & Opinions” (Letters, 209). All in all, our enjoyment of the trip can be best summed up in the words of our incomparable Jane, we enjoyed it “all over … from top to toe, from right to left, Longitudinally, Perpendicularly, Diagonally” (440).