Standing in the Steventon churchyard on a September morning, the dew glistening on the closely mowed grass between the gravestones, I heard the wind whispering in the 900-year-old yew tree that stands at the west end of the church. I could imagine Mr. Bingley and Jane or Eliza and Mr. Darcy bursting through the doors, arrayed in Regency wedding garb, greeted by a crowd of onlookers. But Steventon was quiet, except for the breeze.
This tiny village in the English county of Hampshire is where Jane Austen was born on Dec. 16, 1775, lived the first quarter century of her short life, and wrote the first drafts of three of her novels, including “Pride and Prejudice” — originally called “First Impressions.” I had come to Hampshire hoping to soak up some of Austen’s world in preparation for writing my next novel, also called “First Impressions,” which would feature the writer as a character. Immediately I sensed that the first scene should be set in this churchyard.
Tourists tend to associate Jane Austen with the Georgian facades of Bath, a bustling city in Somerset; but she lived most of her life, and did most of her writing, in two villages in Hampshire, in south central England. She died and was buried in Hampshire’s cathedral city of Winchester. In her tribute to English books and booksellers, “84 Charing Cross Road,” Helene Hanff writes of telling a friend that if she ever goes to England, she’ll go looking for the England of English literature, to which he replies, “It’s there.”
Nearly 200 years after her death, the Hampshire of Jane Austen is certainly there. Steventon feels as isolated now as it was in 1775. One would hardly guess that the busy road to London, which Jane knew as a stagecoach route, lies less than two miles away. My walk down the aptly named Church Walk from the village center to the Church of St. Nicholas, where Jane’s father served as rector, felt like stepping back in time. With woods on my right and open fields on my left, I saw no modern buildings. Even the rectory in which Austen was born and lived, and which stood along this route, was pulled down in the 1820s.
St. Nicholas is a simple medieval structure, little changed from the Austen years, save for the addition of a Victorian steeple. The church is generally unlocked during daylight hours and, though redecorated in the Victorian period, still has the feel of an 18th-century country chapel. On the walls hang memorials to many members of the Austen family.
To the west of the church lies open farmland, backed by a small forest called West Wood. It was easy to imagine, as I wandered among the gravestones, Miss Austen enjoying long walks through this landscape. She seems to have loved Steventon: When she heard the news that her father was retiring in 1801 and moving the family to Bath, she fainted dead away.
While Bath is full of Regency buildings, which would have been well known to Jane Austen, my novel would focus on Jane Austen as a writer, and her years in Bath (as well as those spent in Southampton following the death of her father in 1805) were not a time of great creative output. However, soon after her 1809 move to another quiet Hampshire village, she began to write again.
The village was Chawton, and it is a mecca for Janeites. Here stands Chawton Cottage, where Jane lived with her mother and sister, Cassandra, for the last eight years of her life — years of great productivity that saw the publication of four major novels. The drive from Steventon to Chawton covers just 15 miles, but while the former village is generally void of visitors, tourists disgorge in the latter by the busload, especially in the summertime. I came in the off-season, though, and found the village almost as peaceful as it was when Miss Austen lived here.
Chawton Cottage is now the Jane Austen’s House Museum. Here the visitor can walk through the rooms where Austen lived and worked, and view many relics of her family: her father’s bookcase; a quilt made by the Austen women; and, famously, a turquoise ring belonging to Austen, which the museum was able to purchase in 2013, preventing its export to America by Kelly Clarkson. To me, though, the most moving object was a simple 12-sided walnut table, barely wide enough to hold an inkwell, a quill pen and a few sheets of paper. Here, Jane Austen revised her early work (including transforming “First Impressions” into “Pride and Prejudice”), and wrote her later novels “Mansfield Park,” “Emma” and “Persuasion.”
I lingered by the table for several minutes, trying to imagine plying the trade of novelist, and plying it at Austen’s heights, on this modest surface. It is humbling enough as a writer to feel the presence of Jane Austen, more humbling still to consider with what meager tools she achieved so much.
A short walk up the road from the museum is Chawton House. Behind the chapel of this impressive country home, set in a large sheep-dotted park, are the graves of Jane’s mother and sister. The house itself once belonged to Jane’s brother Edward Austen Knight who, when he was about 15, in a scene right out of “Downton Abbey,” was adopted by childless distant relatives and became heir to the Chawton estate and other properties.
The house was renovated in the 1990s by the American philanthropist and book collector Sandy Lerner and now serves as a study center housing her collection of early British woman writers. Chawton House is open only on certain days, and tours must be arranged in advance. My group consisted of myself and one other couple plus our two tour guides.
In the dining room we sat comfortably around a highly polished table. Our guides pointed out the late-19th-century decorated paneling, then casually mentioned that Jane Austen had frequently dined at the very table on which we were resting our elbows; we instantly sat upright with respect. The gem of Chawton House for me is a painting hanging in the former “Ladies Withdrawing Room.” The 1780 gouache by Adam Callender shows the house from across the park. It is now intimately familiar to me, as it graces the dust jacket of my new novel.
In May 1817 Jane Austen went to Winchester for medical treatment. Here, on July 18, she died, and six days later was buried in Winchester Cathedral. The house in which she died stands just outside the cathedral precincts and bears a plaque marking its place in literary history. After the short drive from Chawton, I arrived in Winchester in time to have a look around the cathedral before evensong began at 5:30.
The soaring nave of Winchester holds twin inspirations for me — one of the final scenes in my novel “First Impressions” is the death of Jane Austen, while one of the early scenes in my novel “The Bookman’s Tale” takes place on the north side of the nave at the elaborate tomb of Bishop William of Wykeham. Before paying my respects to Austen, I walked through a heavy wooden door in the north transept and up a creaking flight of stairs to the cathedral library. Well hidden, and not always open, the library displays a short manuscript by Jane Austen: “To the Memory of Mrs. Lefroy,” a poem of mourning written when Austen was just 23.
Back in the nave I reached the final stop in my tour — a slab of black marble marking the grave of Jane Austen. Much has been made of the fact that the stone’s inscription makes no mention of her writing career, but this was not unusual at the time. I had read for years (and still do in most sources) that the Biographical Note composed by her brother Henry for the posthumous edition of “Persuasion” and “Northanger Abbey” (published in December 1817) was the first public identification of her as an author.
However, while researching my novel I discovered this note, which local residents could have read in the Salisbury and Winchester Journal on July 28, 1817, 10 days after her death:
“On Friday the 18th inst. died in this city Miss Jane Austen, youngest daughter of the late Rev. George Austen, Rector of Steventon, in this county, and the Authoress of Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility. Her manners were most gentle, her affection ardent, her candour was not to be surpassed, and she lived and died as became an humble christian.”
The wonderful thing about English cathedrals is that, in spite of the changes in décor and furnishings over the years, many spots remain unchanged from centuries past. The floor of Winchester’s north nave aisle, and the gravestone set into it, are, but for the wear of pilgrims’ feet, much the same as when the first mourners paid tribute to Jane Austen.
Her gravestone elaborates on the qualities of her character: The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her, and the warmest love of her intimate connections.
As I sat in the cathedral choir, listening to the soaring music of evensong — repeating prayers that Austen would have known well — I felt I had come a little closer to the great “authoress,” to whom life in the small villages of Hampshire had given the peace and the insight to create works that are more widely loved than she could have imagined.
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