JANE AUSTEN: Interpretations and Interactions, June 18 - June 29, 1997

Jane Austen's cart

Gathered from all parts of the United States and Canada, 23 JASNA members spent 10 days in total harmony, following Jane Austen’s footsteps in life, in letters, in novels, films and videos.

June proved an inauspicious month for traveling during this first-ever JASNA tour, although, unlike Lords, the Eton-Harrow Cricket Match, the Wimbleton Tennis and the Chawton Church Fete, our expedition was not rained out. Umbrellas up, scarves securely tied, we sloshed through gardens, down village lanes, up to stately homes, intrepid in our desire for first-hand knowledge of our beloved Jane.

Nor were the English Jane Austen Society members unequal to the task of welcoming us in the midst of downpours at Kenilworth Castle, damp grass at Crowe Hall, and rain at Godmersham Park. We left England knowing that very little more moisture was required for this to be the wettest June of the century.

Steventon parsonage

The parsonage at Steventon

Appropriately, we began touring at Steventon, although only an historically doubtful pump is left of the rectory. St. Nicholas Church remains, its bells refurbished with JASNA help. The rector, Michael Kenning, presented (temporarily) the key to the church to JASNA President Elsa Solender while the bells pealed joyously. Then on we went to lunch at Ibthorpe.

To London we then ventured to see the Cassandra portrait and hear Brian Southam at the National Portrait Gallery and then on to the British Library. Under the leadership of Deirdre Le Faye, we actually were able to hold, to read from and laugh over the real manuscripts of Love and Friendship, The History of England, two chapters of Persuasion, and several letters. This for many was indeed the highlight of the trip.

Memorable also were the costumes from the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice displayed at Goodnestone House, home of Lord and Lady Fitzwalter, who kindly allowed us to take pictures of each other with the headless Mr. Darcy, resplendent in evening dress. But it was the lunch and dramatic presentation arranged by Alwyn Austen at Godmersham House, former home of Edward Austen Knight, that proved a true hit. Rebecca Bleck’s performance of The History of England was climaxed by a spirited battle between Cavalier Frances Austen and Roundhead Mr. Van Essen battling with swords and popping balloons for cannon shots, while Karen Desjardins blasting on a trumpet made rousing cavalry charges.

Kenilworth Castle next day was suitably picturesque, yet we yearned for an abbey, Stoneleigh Abbey, visible only from the outside because of renovations and a new life as flats. A brief stop at Stoneleigh Church to see Knight monuments produced a village worthy with an extensive knowledge of hatchments and the subtle humor to be found in heraldic emblems—which he was more than willing to share for our enlightenment.

No tour to Lichfield should miss a church service in Lichfield Cathedral, with its ethereal choir, or a visit to Dr. Johnson’s birthplace. Elsa Solender gave us an excellent talk about the noted lexicographer, writer and conversationalist before we visited his house, now half shrine, half bookshop.

Was Chatsworth the model for Pemberley? We saw a ducal palace, extensive pleasure grounds, old rose gardens, lupine gardens, kitchen gardens, exotic chickens, fountains, greedy pheasants that tried to outstare Rosalie Sternberg, and a muddy maze that nearly entrapped Joan Dow, but no Mr. Darcy. The vote against Chatsworth being Pemberley was 21 against; two, perhaps; and one, asleep. Lyme Park, used as the exterior in the 1995 BBC production, seemed the right size for Elizabeth to manage, and with a live grazing stag at its entrance, its long gallery, and its exquisite carvings, needed only a Mr. Darcy to be quite perfect.

Only a Catherine Morland could more eagerly anticipate an arrival in Bath. We visited 4 Sydney Place, where Mary Beth Uitti and Meredith Hutchins, among others, took turns being photographed with a Jane Austen first edition. A visit to the Assembly Rooms and the Costume Museum was followed by the house museum at No. 1, The Royal Crescent. While tour members strolled on the gravel walk nearby, the passage describing Captain Wentworth and Anne’s walk there was vividly read aloud.

Later, a very select party, all in period dress, gathered at Crowe Hall. Our host, a gentle, elderly man with an elegant house filled with treasures, greeted us with courtesy. After Maggie Lane had generously autographed her books in the library, we talked in the garden, dined on salmon en croute and strawberries in hazelnut meringues and heard a costumed trio read Jane Austen selections and sing songs of her period. Rita Paine was in her new Martha Caprarotta gown; Julie Arnold and Marian LaBeck looked appropriately young and pretty, but the star of the evening was Jean Long. From the green feather in her hair to the green and gold ribbons on her slippers, she was an impressive figure and commanded the most attention wherever she walked.

As Bath must always be filled with many social engagements, we dined the next night at The American Museum, with its marvelous collection of quilts, and toasted the birthday of Joan Fairservis. The next day, we ventured out to Lyme Regis, a remarkably hilly resort. Rain and heavy gusts of wind made walking on the Cobb a risky impossibility, but we did venture out to see the famous steps and listen huddled together to that famous episode. Mapperton House, the site of Randalls for the movie Emma, was too drenched with rain to see the whole of the beautiful gardens, but the Countess of Sandwich did give us a delightful tour of the house with her wry sense of humor much in evidence. A slight detour gave us a glimpse of Stonehenge through the mist and rain, an unexpected treat on the way to Winchester and a celebration of Fran Burke’s birthday.

Winchester is a good location from which to make an expedition to Portsmouth, with its associations with the Austen men and Captain Wentworth. Cold winds made the outdoors unpleasant, but we managed to find a sheltered nook for the readings about Jane Austen’s naval associations. Fran Burke made a fragile Fanny, Virginia Mellema a dashing Captain Wentworth, and Marcia Folsom a lovable Anne, to mention a few of the brave actresses. A visit to Nelson’s flagship left all horrified at the hardships of the sea and of naval warfare, and we marveled still more at the successes of the Austen brothers.

Winchester, of course, was a fitting place to end our journey, for Jane had died in the upper room of the pretty house near Winchester College. It was a very subdued group that gathered outside to hear Cassandra’s letter read and then follow the path to the cathedral that the little cortege must have taken. Dr. Mary Lou White, the tour director, had thoughtfully provided a rose for each of us to add to an arrangement below the plaque to Jane’s memory near her tomb, and not a few sobs punctuated the prayers and thoughts of those gathered.

Chawton House

Chawton House

The afternoon at Chawton proved a good reminder of the number of readers who enjoy Jane Austen. Cassandra Knight, the landscape architect who is to help restore Chawton House for Sandy Lerner’s planned Centre for the Study of Early English Women’s Writing, discussed and showed slides of her ancestor’s house as it was and will be again. We retraced Austen footsteps from the Austen cottage to the great house and admired the outside, the insides being dangerously in need of repair.

Then we wandered back to dust the famous donkey cart, view at our leisure the contents of the house, marvel at the little table and chair facing the window, the still squeaky door and the memorandum tablet of a few inches. We then had a tea of goodies prepared from Austen recipes and chatted with British Jane Austen Society Secretary Susan McCartan, Chawton Curator Jean Bowden, and the administrator of Chawton, Tom Carpenter. Once again, actress Judith French portrayed Jane Austen, and she consented to photographs afterward: "Look this way now, Jane." And then there was nothing left but the final banquet, the final toasts, the jumping on overfilled suitcases.

A few words about the professionals: The extraordinary planning and thought that went into this inaugural JASNA tour made it a great success. Mary Lou White unobtrusively made certain all went well and solved the few problems and crises that arose in a quiet manner that proved we were in the hands of a thoroughly competent and very nice professional. Elizabeth Proudman, our local guide, was not only a lover of Jane Austen and her family but also knowledgeable about archaeology, gardens, history, architecture, and literature.

By Sallie Wadsworth