Friday, June 25, 2010

Jane Austen Travel Essay

Hello, readers! I am back...hopefully for good now. England was beautiful and amazing and every positive thing that could be said about a place I can say about England. I'll write more later, but for now I'm going to post a travel essay that I wrote for ENGL 388 on Jane Austen. If you hate Jane Austen, that's just too bad.


My Journey with Jane Austen

When people think of England, most would begin discussing London, fish and chips, lovely accents, or Harry Potter. Although all of those things are great, I decided to go in another direction entirely – Jane Austen. Whether you’re an Austen enthusiast or are simply looking to learn more about England, Bath and Chawton are two places that come to mind for accomplishing both. While on a recent trip to the British Isles for a literary tour with my school, I decided to see what I could find out about the famous female writer who has been on people’s minds for roughly two-hundred years.

After touring the many sites of London for a few days, my group moved on to Chawton for a couple of hours to visit Jane Austen’s home and the village she lived in during most of the last eight years of her life. The first thing that struck me about this place was how peaceful it was. There were few people about and most of them were tourists from the looks of it. The serene feeling made me think of how it must have been during Jane’s time spent there. Being as how she wrote and/or completed much of her work there, I’d like to think that she found comfort in Chawton, a sense of peace that she didn’t have elsewhere.

Another thing I noticed once getting off of the coach was how high some of the trees were. The height spoke for itself, and it made me realize that some of those same trees were present during Jane’s residency. It’s surreal to enter the life of such a well-known person who has been gone from this world for almost two-hundred years. Making my way towards the house she lived in, it was evident that people have not forgotten her.

While the house was not a palace by any means, it was suitable for the people living in it during Jane’s time. The people who take care of the residency do it in a manner that retains much of the originality that existed when the Austen women resided there. I was most interested in the small table that was sitting by the window on the main level. Although it was the size of what one might see as a side table in a sitting room for a lamp to rest on, to Jane it was a writing desk. It’s fascinating how a table that would hardly hold a laptop on it today was once the place where Jane did some of her greatest writing. It was said that she wrote every morning after breakfast and often throughout the day to keep from forgetting something she wanted to write about or include in a novel, and it was at that table where she would write. I feel that every writer has little tidbits that make them unique, as well as a place where they can go to write. Jane was unique for being a successful female author in a world dominated by men, and her writing desk was her place for conducting literary symphonies. Today, I find myself carrying around a little notebook just in case something comes to mind that I don’t want to forget. It may not be as unique as finding a writing desk to call home or rebelling against what was normal for women, but I find comfort in the little writing pad in a way I’d imagine Jane found comfort in her little writing desk.

Another part of the house that interested me was a sitting area where Jane and Cassandra would sit and hold conversations. This captured me because people today are always in such a rush that they hardly ever sit around for hours with a loved one to converse, let alone on a regular basis. I’m not going to pretend that times were easier or freer in Jane’s time, but people in that day certainly knew how to relax and live for the simple things. I was able to picture Jane and Cassandra sitting there discussing family members, writing and the troubled times of women. Even though I was there for a short time, I could picture many moments of laughter and tears shared between those two sisters. I have an older sister myself, and although we do not live together any longer or get along constantly, we are no strangers to laughter and tears. Picturing Jane’s life at Chawton helped me to find comfort in the relationship I have with my own sister.

The inspiration I felt inside Jane’s house was a stepping stone in what was to come when walking outside to the garden. It was such a treat for me to see a real English garden after living in America for the past twenty-two years without understanding the appeal of gardening. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a thousand words are not worth the picture that I saw in the garden. Although much has been renovated or changed since Austen’s time, the general idea of the serene garden remains intact. Flowers from pansies to lilacs fill the garden along the walking path. Separating the Austen home from the neighbors is a hedge close to a dozen feet tall. But even the hedge didn’t stop the cat from appearing.

While on my Austenesque stroll through the garden, a black cat leapt out of the hedge and into the path mere feet ahead of me. Having two black cats at home, I refused to believe it as a form of superstition but rather a reminder that I would in fact be going home in just over a week’s time. I spent a span of five minutes playing with the cat and taking photos of it rolling around on the ground, and I concluded that the cat had a nice life in Chawton. He or she – I took it as a male – had the reward of walking into Jane’s world every day if it pleased him, and there was nobody around telling him that he couldn’t be there. If I were a cat in England, there is a good chance that I would do the exact same thing.

With memories filling my head and time running out, I returned to the group to head on. After visiting Stonehenge, as well as having our coach break down along the way, we journeyed on to the historic city of Bath. Although many recognize Bath for its Roman history and grandeur architecture like the Royal Crescent, I was intrigued in continuing on my Austen mission. But first I had to climb a hill.

I have been on long walks before, but being overweight and living in the flatlands of North Dakota I had no prior experience with walking up a hill. I was eager to see the city of Bath due to the many wonderful things I had heard about it from a friend who had been there a couple of years prior. But as we had arrived in the evening, there was nothing to do besides go to dinner. After dining at a delicious Italian restaurant with half of the group, it was time to walk back up Bathwick hill towards our youth hostel. The walk down had tired me due to the hot sun beating down on us, but I had not considered the walk up until we began our journey back. We were about one-third of a mile up the hill when I began losing breath and gaining wobble in my step. I spotted a bench up ahead and decided that was the place to break. I told a friend that I could no longer do this walk and shuffled to the bench to sit down. This alarmed the group and caused everyone to stop, something I had not thought about. Due to my exhaustion and embarrassment, I broke down in tears in front of the group and began to hyperventilate. Nothing was calming me down, and there was a moment where I just couldn’t breathe. As this was not normal for me, I didn’t know what to do. I sipped some of one girl’s water and tried to laugh at jokes people were telling, but the usual quick fixes were not working. I moved into another state of consciousness when I thought about what Jane would do in this situation, and I realized that Jane would write about it. She would get over whatever was harming her, laugh it off, and write about it. It’s obvious that I moved on from that point and made it up the hill eventually, but I learned a lot about myself that night on the hill. For one, I realized how serious my weight issues were and that something needed to be done about them. And for two, I realized that I had the power to get over any hurdle that I was dealing with. Maybe Jane only came to mind that evening because I had seen her house that day and was going to visit another Austen location in the morning, but I’d like to think that I thought of her for a significant reason. Jane would write about such a thing, so here I am writing about it.

After getting back to the hostel and calming down, I fell into a deep sleep and didn’t stir until morning. There were no specific plans outside of our group walking back down the hill towards Bath’s city centre to visit the Roman Baths. The walk down the hill was much more exciting than the previous day because we decided to take a shorter route down a field that gave us a view of the city, versus the street walk where we could only see the path of homes in front of us. Although Bathwick hill wasn’t much until after her death, I think Jane would have enjoyed getting away from society and walking in that field. After enjoying a history lesson and the visuals of the Roman Baths and also Bath Abbey, I decided it was time to continue on my journey with Jane.

Although she lived at 25 Gay Street during her time in Bath, among other residencies, the Jane Austen Centre is located at 40 Gay Street. I was warned against this museum spot as being a bit tacky. My suspicion of the fact was confirmed when I approached the building and saw a Jane Austen statue standing out front. After paying and entering the museum, you are to wait until a specific time for the next tour to begin. The room was hot and it was evident that a few men in the room were not looking forward to the journey into Jane’s life and history. I expressed my sympathies with a light smile and entered the first exhibit spot a short while later. A humorous woman presented some of the key facts in regards to Jane’s life in Bath as well as some family background. I learned about the Austen children who had until then been mere names to me. I learned about their positions in life and what became of them, which was fascinating since I had known little of her family until the trip. It gave me a better sense of who Jane was outside of her writing when learning about her family. The way a person grew up and who they grew up with can say a lot about them, after all.

I also learned that Jane did not particularly enjoy her time in Bath and that her work suffered there due to the business and society life there. It surprised me to hear this because Bath was my favorite city on our two-week tour of the British Isles. Although it is smaller than my hometown of Fargo, North Dakota, I can understand why Jane would have felt out of place there. She was raised a country girl and enjoyed the simplest of pleasures that life had to offer. She didn’t expect much from the world. All she seemed to want were the nurtures of family life and the comforts of ink and paper. Bath was a classy city during Jane’s day with many rich and important people residing there, so it was no wonder that she didn’t enjoy it. In fact, many of the more unflattering characters in her novels were based on Bath society. With this in mind, I felt that it was a destiny of sorts for me to enjoy a place that she disliked so much. If Jane was living today, I think she would appreciate the city more than during her time.

I find it only fair to admit that I was not an Austen enthusiast going into this journey. I had read Pride and Prejudice and knew little about her otherwise. I felt as though I would never truly appreciate the woman who so many admired, but something along the way connected me with her. It wasn’t the visuals in Chawton or Bath, or even the fact that I looked to her during my moment of weakness on Bathwick Hill, but rather one simple piece of information about the very end of Jane’s life. The most interesting fact I learned about her was that she died on July 18th, the day I was born. Although 170 years separate her death date and my birth date, I’d like to think that there is some significance to that day. Unlike Jane, I am not a published writer, nor have I experienced everything she did by twenty-two. But I strongly believe that I was meant to go on my journey with her for a reason. Maybe I am destined to pick up where she left off, I don’t know. But I am destined for something, just as Jane Austen was.

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